The Mississippi Charter School Authorizer Board has released for public review the draft Request for Proposals (RFP), or the Charter School Application Guide, for the establishment of charter schools. Community groups and others who are planning to pursue charter schools will be required to submit information as outlined in the application guide. All charter applications will be evaluated by the board according to a scoring rubric. See the proposed timeline for that process here.
The wording of the RFP, or application guide, is very important because it lays out the criteria by which the applications will be judged. The rubric is likewise critical, because it is the instrument that application reviewers will use to score the applications. These scores will determine whether or not an applicant is granted a charter. The rubric should be aligned with the application, and both should reflect the high standard that the Legislature intended.
The public is offered the opportunity to review the application guidelines (RFP) and the evaluation rubric and provide comments, concerns, and suggestions about them to the authorizer board. All comments must be submitted no later than November 13, either by email to email@example.com or by postal mail (see instructions here).
There are a few areas of concern, primarily the lack of alignment between the rubric and the RFP. The rubric does not direct reviewers to score the application based upon the criteria laid out in the law (non-profit status, track record, evidence of capacity to raise student achievement among low performing students, etc.).
Remember that all charter schools will be located in school districts with low performing schools. Moving these students to academic success is exceedingly difficult work that requires an extraordinary level of expertise and commitment. It is essential that the RFP and the rubric provide strict guidelines to help application reviewers ensure that only schools that meet very high standards will be allowed to move into Mississippi. Our children simply cannot afford any more failing schools.
Concerns about the application guide:
Most troubling is the partial omission of the law regarding the involvement of for-profit corporations in Mississippi’s charter schools. Eliminating the profit motive from charter schools in our state was a huge win for us when the charter school bill was passed. Charter school experts in other states with whom I have talked (including a number of charter school operators) have agreed that for-profit charters are bad news. Their achievement records are abysmal, and they are typically among the worst offenders when it comes to “push out” of struggling students and financial mismanagement. Based on what other states have experienced, we have every reason to expect private corporations to continue their campaign to gain access to taxpayer dollars and their push to privatize public schools. For this reason, the authorizer board should clarify this section of the RFP.
The charter school bill states: “A charter school and any education service provider which provides comprehensive management for a charter school must be a nonprofit education organization.” (House Bill 369, lines 1050-1052: Mississippi Charter Schools Act of 2013)
The RFP states: “Note: Mississippi law prohibits charter schools from operating as for-profit corporations.”
The problem is this: in other states many charter schools are themselves organized as non-profit entities, but are wholly managed by for-profit companies. This arrangement gives profit-minded corporations complete control over state taxpayer funds designated for public education. The goal of a for-profit company is to make a profit. When faced with a choice between serving children well or satisfying shareholders with a higher profit, for-profit school leaders have consistently sided with shareholders.
The RFP should clearly state what the law says: a charter school and any education service provider which provides comprehensive management for a charter school must be non-profit.
Another area of concern is the verbiage addressing lottery procedures to be followed by charters as they determine who will be admitted to the school.
The charter law states that an applicant must provide: “Plans and timelines for student recruitment and enrollment, including lottery policies and procedures that ensure that every student has an equal opportunity to be considered in the lottery and that the lottery is equitable, randomized, transparent and impartial so that students are accepted in a charter school without regard to disability, income level, race, religion or national origin;” (House Bill 369, lines 569-574: Mississippi Charter Schools Act of 2013)
The RFP states that an applicant must: “Outline the planned admission process, including specifics around any admission priorities for students, lottery procedures and policies around waiting lists.”
The authorizer board should revise this section to request a very detailed plan for admission and lottery procedures that reflects the obvious intent of the Legislature to ensure equal opportunities for all children. The RFP could make this absolutely clear by simply using the precise wording from the charter school law.
Track Record Language
The clear intent of the Legislature is for charter schools to provide a good public education in places where children are trapped in failing schools. Anyone who has been associated with this kind of turnaround work will tell you that it is exceedingly difficult. In fact, there are relatively few people equipped with the skills and dedication required for true school turnaround success. This factor is largely responsible for the relatively high rate of charter school failure nationwide. It is imperative that the authorizer board hold charter schools to the high standard required for success and require that those who are granted charters have demonstrated significant improvement in student achievement in a school turnaround environment.