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Mississippi lawmaker Kenneth Wayne Jones, a Democrat, briefly became a political pariah last winter when he voted in favor of a proposal to expand charter schools in his state. He was the only African-American state senator to support the bill, which most members of Mississippi’s legislative Black Caucus disavowed. Jones liked the idea of expanded school options for families, but he also understood his colleagues’ mistrust.

“You’ve got conservative Republicans all of a sudden showing a lot of concern about the education of African-American children, while in the same breath they are denying them health care,” Jones said.

This winter, charter supporters will make their fifth attempt in five years to bring charters to Mississippi, one of a dwindling number of states without a real charter school law. (The state has an existing law so restrictive that no charters have opened.)

race and education
Students attend a summer session at Lyon Elementary School near the city of Clarksdale in the Mississippi Delta. School districts throughout the state could see increased competition from charter schools if a controversial bill passes the Mississippi legislature this session. (Photo by Jackie Mader) Credit: Jackie Mader

But the deep-rooted skepticism of the state’s black leadership remains one of the biggest obstacles to bipartisan support for charters in Mississippi and throughout the South, where powerful white Democrats are a disappearing breed. It also speaks to broader mistrust among black officials nationwide—particularly those who came of age before or during the civil rights movement—toward contemporary school reform efforts they believe are being imposed by outsiders on low-income, minority communities.

“White people cannot tell us what’s best for educating our children,” said State Sen. David Jordan, a 78-year-old African American from the Mississippi Delta town of Greenwood. “Heck, we did it for decades without even the money for books. Through the help of God we made it.”

Similar tensions have emerged in Washington, D.C. and New Orleans, where veteran black politicians and venerable civil rights organizations like the NAACP have been among the most vociferous opponents of recent education reforms. Those changes include the expansion of charter schools, the recruitment of out-of-town educators through programs like Teach For America, and the weakening of job protections for teachers.

In Mississippi, which has the nation’s highest rate of childhood poverty and posts some of the weakest test scores, there’s particular urgency to improving the schools. Advocates of charters believe the autonomous schools will help boost the state’s abysmal academic performance. They say they can learn from mistakes made in other states to ensure Mississippi’s charter law is exemplary.

Critics counter that the state needs to focus on fully funding the schools it already operates and create a desperately needed pre-kindergarten program before it looks to alternatives like charters. They also worry that the charter movement will be hijacked by virtual schools and for-profit companies hoping to profit off of Mississippi’s children.

The support of the Black Caucus likely won’t be crucial to passing a new charter school law in Mississippi, though. Republicans control both houses of the legislature, some Democrats support charters, and Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant, who is white, has made the issue one of his top priorities. (Last year’s bill failed largely because a few key Republicans didn’t support it.)

But the Caucus’ response will be a litmus test for whether black leaders are growing more receptive—or more resistant—to the reforms that are steadily reshaping public education across America.

Charter skeptics

The debate over school reform doesn’t always fall neatly along racial lines. President Barack Obama has embraced charters and other controversial changes. Black leaders like Howard Fuller in Milwaukee and Geoffrey Canada in New York City are among the most outspoken and prominent supporters of radical changes to the traditional public school structure. And, as the divide between Jones and Jordan illustrates, not all members of Mississippi’s Black Caucus are united in full-throated opposition to charters.

But in Mississippi and elsewhere, charter and reform backers have often struggled to win over civil rights organizations like the NAACP and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, as well as a majority of black lawmakers and voters.

race and education
Students attend a summer session at Lyon Elementary School near the city of Clarksdale in the Mississippi Delta. School districts throughout the state could see increased competition from charter schools if a controversial bill passes the Mississippi legislature this session. (Photo by Jackie Mader)

In Washington D.C., for instance, former mayor Adrian Fenty lost his re-election bid in 2010 at least partly because middle-class black voters were frustrated with the hard-charging style of his schools chief, Michelle Rhee. She not only supported charters but also aggressively pushed to close low-performing schools and fire struggling teachers. In New Orleans, thousands of educators lost their jobs in the lead up to the rapid chartering of the city’s schools after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The move left many of the city’s predominantly black veteran educators feeling disenfranchised and suspicious of the changes. And in New York City, NAACP leader Hazel Dukes underscored her organization’s intense disdain for charters when she accused a parent who supported them of “doing the business of slave masters.”

The racial tensions surrounding school reform have complicated origins. Mississippi State Sen. Jordan, a retired public-school science teacher, said he fears charters partly because they could bring more white out-of-state educators to Mississippi who won’t be able to relate to the children there. “Teachers who come in claim they can do a yeoman’s job,” he said. “But I don’t think someone can come from Illinois and do a better job with the kids of the Mississippi Delta than the teachers who are already here.”

Jordan also worries that charters could mean a loss of black power and leadership in rural communities where the black community fought long and hard to claim top positions in the schools. In the Delta town of Indianola, for example, the black community staged a lengthy boycott of white businesses in order to get the first African-American school superintendent appointed in 1986.

“If you go to another model, people are not going to hire African Americans in the top positions,” said Jordan. “The bottom line is to eliminate African Americans.”

In the Mississippi Delta, nearly 90 percent of the public-school children are black, and school districts are one of the few sources of stable jobs.

“In rural counties, the school districts are the main employer,” said Mike Sayer, senior organizer at Southern Echo, a black leadership organization based in Jackson that opposes charters. “If these school districts go down altogether, it will have a crippling effect. In a lot of these communities there are no other places to work.”

Lessons from New Orleans

Charter proponents say they hope talented local educators will open charters, and that fears of widespread upheaval and displacement are overblown.

“Forty other states have [charters] and, to my knowledge, traditional public education hasn’t been destroyed,” said Sanford Johnson, deputy director of Mississippi First, a nonprofit education advocacy organization that supports charters.

Mississippi First executive director Rachel Canter adds that charter supporters have been careful to specify in the proposed bill that all educators with strong track records will be eligible to open charters—regardless of whether their experience is with charter or traditional schools. That way, Mississippi locals will not feel dissuaded from the start.

“Whether local people can open charters has been a huge issue for the Black Caucus,” Canter said.

A draft of the bill presented earlier this winter calls for a statewide authorizing board to vet charter applicants. In low-performing school districts, applicants would need only the board’s approval to open. But in stronger districts, they would also need a nod from a majority of local school-board members.

“The most important thing is to give new opportunities to talented educators who are right there in their communities,” said Kenneth Campbell, president of the Black Alliance for Educational Options, which advocates for charters and increased school choice for low-income black families.

Campbell points out that in New Orleans—ground zero for controversy surrounding education reform—several of the most successful charters were started by black veteran educators who ran traditional public schools before Katrina. The city has a higher percentage of charters than any other, and could become the first citywide school system comprised entirely of charters within the next few years.

New Orleans has also attracted national charter-school networks such as the Knowledge is Power Program and Future Is Now Schools; and most of the school leaders recruited by the charter “incubator” New Schools for New Orleans have come from out of town. The new, less local leadership has helped contribute to the changing demographics of the city’s teacher corps.

Before Katrina, New Orleans had one of the highest percentages of black educators of any city in the country. But starting in 2007 that percentage began to drop steadily, to 63 percent during the 2007-08 school year, and 57 percent the next year, according to data from the Louisiana Department of Education.

Overall, test scores are going up for a variety of reasons, and parents of all races and income levels have reported growing satisfaction with the city’s public schools. But “one can be as kumbaya as they come and still worry about the psychological effect on black children who come to equate both education and authority with whiteness,” wrote Times-Picayune columnist Jarvis DeBerry of the shift.

Trying to overcome history, mistrust

History might be one of the biggest obstacles to building more broad-based support for charter schools in Mississippi.

Black officials say it’s tough to trust that the state’s white leadership has the best interests of children at heart when they have underfunded the public schools for so long.

Many also fear that charters could provide a means for dozens of nearly all-white “segregation academies” to obtain public funding. The draft legislation doesn’t allow private schools to convert to charters, but that provision has not squelched the fears. Many of the academies are facing declining enrollments as middle-class whites flee the Delta, and would jump at the chance to become charters, skeptics say.

“Claiming that private schools can’t convert to charter schools is nonsense,” said Sayer, who adds that savvy school operators will be able to find a way around the letter of the law. But Mississippi First’s Johnson says the statewide authorizing board would be able to identify suspect applicants because of the rigorous nature of the approval process outlined in the proposed bill.

“Mississippi’s history is the reason people are suspicious about all these things,” said Nancy Loome, executive director of The Parents’ Campaign, which supports a more restricted charter law that would ban virtual and for-profit operators.

Campbell acknowledges that “people have long memories” in Mississippi, which can make it challenging to build trust. But he said lawmakers and citizens of all races and political affiliations are more open to the concept of charters than in previous years.

“There’s an increased desire to learn more,” he said.

Kenneth Wayne Jones, who will chair the Black Caucus during the upcoming legislative session, agrees.

“I don’t think it will be as toxic as it was last year,” he said. “I don’t know if the Caucus will be more supportive when it comes to votes, but I know we’ll be listening more than last year. If this train is coming, we need to make sure we are on it.”

Sarah Carr is the author of the forthcoming Hope Against Hope: Three Schools, One City, and the Struggle to Educate America’s Children (Bloomsbury Press, February 2013).

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  1. Mississippi’s struggle to find common ground in the Charter School debate has only to examine the struggles of urban charter schools across the country. When school’s have the benefit of site based governance, the concern about who in the State House is pulling the strings tends to go away. Regardless of the challenges of race and resources, charter schools offer to all, opportunities that were simply unavailable in the traditional public model.

    This debate in Mississippi is an unsavory reminder that the struggle for equity and equality has not been won. In the 21st Century, charter schools are one variable in addressing the Civil Rights issue of our time; equal access to rigorous schooling.

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