Despite unified opposition to new regulations that govern accountability, the Mississippi Charter Authorizer Board is set to approve them at its next board meeting on November 8.
The new regulations will assess the accountability of a charter operator and whether the board will authorize their contract for a new four- or five-year period. It measures accountability in three areas: Academic, financial and organizational.
Charter schools are public schools that are operated by an outside firm that must receive permission from the authorizer board before opening a school. The school operator receives a five-year contract and the framework will decide whether an operator gets a new contract.
The biggest problem with the regulations that charter school operators and advocates have criticized is the tying of the academic performance benchmark with that of the local school district where the charter is located.
Since some charter schools take students from multiple districts, the framework doesn’t address which would be the district of comparison for this vital part of the performance framework.
According to Jon Rybka, the CEO of charter operator RePublic Schools, it would be an apples to oranges comparison that is not part of the state law that created charter schools and leaves operators with a “lack of clarity” when it comes to benchmarks.
Considering the number of public comments on the regulations and proposed revisions, board members only asked two questions of the five speakers at the hearing on October 27 for the new regulations.
Mississippi First executive director Rachel Canter blasted the board’s framework and said her organization along with others has provided several comments and analyses that have largely been ignored in the final iteration of the regulations.
“There is no credible case that stakeholders have agreed to any of the documents that are the subject of today’s hearing,” Canter said. “To continue to insist that stakeholders were engaged or even that there is consensus or agreement in principle on the design or format of the framework when nearly every significant stakeholder in this space has said clearly and consistently that that is not the case is disingenuous at best.”
Mississippi First offered critiques of two of the three areas, financial and organization. It said in its comments that the new financial analysis in the framework could potentially allow poorly performing schools to receive a passing grade while penalizing schools with good financial performance. The reason is that the authorizer board, instead of developing its own charter-specific framework, adopted the Mississippi Department of Education’s accounting manual.
According to their comments, this has the effect of not only compromising the independence of the authorizer board, but also gives the MDE the ability to regulate charters.
Elyse Marcellino, the director of the New School Project at Empower Mississippi, told the board that the framework’s “robust” nature can have the effect of squelching educational innovation that is the whole purpose of charter schools. She also said that the framework would make Mississippi, with the greatest need, an unattractive place for charter operators to open new schools.
Trey Vernaci, the director of operations of RePublic, told the board that they recommended the framework not be adopted because problems with both the substance and process with renewals would lead to limiting the number of charter schools.
At the end of the comment period during the hearing, Charter School Authorizer Board executive director Lisa Karmacharya read a comment from Michigan-based Basis Policy Research (the consultants who rewrote the new framework) on the new regulations that acted as a reply to the criticism of both advocates and school operators. Basis said in its comments that the new framework will provide a “rigorous and transparent process to evaluate the quality of charter schools in Mississippi.
In December 2020, the board gave Basis a $30,000 contract to help rewrite the performance framework.
There are only seven charter schools in Mississippi, most in the Jackson area, and two more will open next year.
In 2013, the Mississippi Legislature passed a bill that authorized charter schools in Mississippi. The compromises required to get it across the finish line to then-Gov. Phil Bryant’s desk were guaranteed to depress the number of schools statewide. First among those compromises was allowing only one charter authorizer board, an independent body with volunteer members.
The second was allowing charters in only failing school districts according to the Mississippi Department of Education’s annual accountability grades. Any other charter that wants to open elsewhere requires the approval of the local school board in addition to that of the authorizer board.