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Hill says charter schools major issue

Published 1:00pm Wednesday, January 2, 2013

State Sen. Angela Burks Hill (R-Picayune), fresh off a Mississippi state legislative tour of a successful charter school system in Arkansas, says the Arkansas experiment is “proving that students from impoverished areas can perform as well as anyone else if placed in the proper learning environment.”

Students from the Kipp Delta Charter Schools in West Helena, Ark., have an average ACT score of 22, as compared to surrounding districts’ 16, and says Hill, “The students have been accepted to Duke University, United States Military academies, as well as numerous other two-year community colleges and four-year universities. . .”

“That’s despite the fact the children are mostly minority and from a poor area,” adds Hill.

“The school started up in 2002 with one fifth-grade class and now has over 1,000 students. It has so many applications that it uses a lottery system to pick applicants,” she said.

When the State Legislature convenes on Jan. 8, Hill, who will be entering her second year representing Senate District 40, which includes Picayune and Pearl River County, told the Item in an interview that “trying to pass a charter school bill” will probably be the No. 1 priority on the legislature’s agenda. She favors it, and many other supporters of the movement mounted a campaign push between sessions in favor of the bill, which failed to pass last year when bottled up in the House Education Committee.

Forty-one states have state provisions allowing for creation of charter schools. Mississippi is one of nine that doesn’t.

Last April, a charter school bill failed by one vote in the House Education Committee when five GOP members changed their vote, voting against the bill. The State Senate passed a version of the bill, but it failed in the House.

There were also reports that some Republicans were afraid charter schools would siphon funds away from successful public schools. Bill supporters said that wouldn’t happen and that the competition would make public schools better. Also, a provision of the bill would allow any public school to switch to a charter school if residents wanted it to.

Some supporters of the bill said that it might have failed just because some legislators and the general public don’t know what a charter school is.

“Some are misinformed on the issue,” said Hill. “But there will be a concerted effort this time to get it passed. The governor will sign it, if passed. I believe we have a good chance in the 2013 session of getting this important piece of legislation passed.” Hill is a member of the Senate Education Committee.

Hill recognizes, however, that it won’t be easy.

“We do have a public relations problem in relation to getting this bill passed. There is a lot of misinformation out there about what a charter school is,” she said.

Hill was a member of a legislative study group that recently toured a successful Arkansas charter school. “If it can work there, it can work here,” she said.

She added, “I toured the charter school in the Delta in Arkansas at West Helena, along with Lt. Gov. Reeves, Gray Tollison and Nancy Adam Collins, and looked at how they are running their charter school and how successful they are.” Tollison is chairman and Collins vice-chairman of the Senate Education Committee. Others on the early December tour were Sen. Chris Massey, Sen. David Parker and interim State Supt. Dr. Lynn House.

Supporters of charter schools say it gives a good student a chance to escape a bad school that is failing. Opponents say charter schools will siphon off funds from the public schools. They say more money should be pumped into the public school system, and that charter schools would make, in some cases, a bad situation worse. Opponents say that the state should pay good teachers more.

But supporters of the charter school movement say millions have been pumped into public schools, there is no competition forcing them to do better, and charter schools have proven to be able to motivate conscientious students who want to learn. Supporters say charter school expenditures per student are lower than the public schools’ and charter schools do a better job. It survives on donations, state appropriations and the grants it can win.

Here’s how Hill described her Arkansas trip:

“Kipp students are about 97 percent minority with 93 percent qualifying for free and reduced lunches. They don’t cherry pick their students, but use a lottery system because the interested applicants outnumber the current capacity.

“They get state per pupil funding, but no millage. They rely on private donations and fundraising to supplement operating costs. Currently, they spend around $8,400 per pupil and start their teachers out around $38,000 per year.

“Public charter schools typically have more flexibility in scheduling, hiring, firing, and teaching methods, than traditional public schools. They have less bureaucrazy but increased accountability with greater demands placed on students, teachers and administrators.

“The charters have to take all state tests that other public schools take, and can have their charters revoked if they don’t perform up to expectations in accountability standards. One thing I noticed in Kipp schools was that they had students in 4th and 5th grades in the same math class based on their skill level, which is a common sense policy.

“Current public schools would have the option of converting to a charter school under the proposed Mississippi Charter School bill. I believe parents should have options when it comes to the education of their children. The way to get Mississippi off the bottom is not continuing the same practices and expecting different results.

“Charters are not a cure-all but another tool to promote higher expectations. Economic development and education go hand-in-hand. We must accept the truth and move forward. We have some great school districts in Mississippi but we have 45,000 students in failing schools inside successful districts.

“Also, there is a parental commitment with a contract being signed. You have to want it and be committed to the homework and rigorous schedule required by the charter school.”

Hill said she is also working on a third-grade proficiency bill she hopes to see passed.

“Florida did a similar measure several years ago and has had a notable increase in reading proficiency with the policy in place. Basically, it says that no third grader who can’t read on a basic level on the designated state testing instrument will not be socially promoted unless they meet prescribed exceptional criteria. I have worked with Rep. Rita Martinson and the department of education to develop a similar policy for Mississippi,” said Hill.

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