By Joe Atkins, Labor South
Mississippi state Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, a longtime champion of public education, said the current debate on charter schools in the state legislature is essentially the latest battle of a longstanding war against public education.
"Ever since I've been in the legislature we've been fighting over public education -- those who believe in it and those on the other side," said Bryan, a 29-year veteran legislator. "If you'll look back over the years, you'll find a group of people pretty much consistently on this side of the education issue and a group of people voting no on everything.
"Just look at the roll call. This is a roll call on education. Look who's voting which way. Overwhelmingly the people voting no on every public school issue over the last eight years … if you compare the charter school roll calls, the people voting yes on charter schools are extraordinarily similar to the no votes from years past."
Bryan and Mississippi First executive director Rachel Canter, a charter school supporter, debated the issue recently at the University of Mississippi's Overby Center for Southern Journalism and Politics in Oxford. Mississippi First is a non-profit organization active in public policy issues.
"Too many children in Mississippi go to underperforming schools," Canter said. "In many traditional schools we haven't innovated in years. Charter schools can design different things. … We support charter schools and public schools."
Bryan said charter schools will drain needed funds from public education. "They'll be taking tax money that I pay to the Amory public schools … and that money will go to a charter school. That's not good for public schools."
Ironically, the legislators dumping new rules and regulations on public schools are the same ones who want to exempt charter schools from those rules and regulations, Bryan said.
Mississippi public education has had a tortured history. The U.S. Supreme Court's Brown vs. Board of Education ruling in 1954 caused such a firestorm that it led to the creation of the (white) Citizens Councils organization in Mississippi. The councils later spread throughout the South. The councils fought racial integration tooth and nail, helping elect segregationist politicians, harassing dissident, racially liberal journalists, and setting up private schools for whites.
To avoid racial integration, white parents across the state of Mississippi sent their children to private academies, leaving public schools populated by mostly black students.
Charter schools come directly out of the playbook of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and the conservative billionaire Koch brothers. The ultimate goal of that playbook is privatization, a shrinking of government and the public role in practically every aspect of American lives.
At the Overby Center debate, Canter said that teachers are what's "really key" to charter schools and the flexibility that is their major attraction over public schools. Charter schools have much more flexibility in "who they can hire, how much they can pay them, under what circumstances they can terminate them."
Ah, there's the rub. Charter schools can show the door to teachers' unions like the Mississippi Association of Educators and the Mississippi American Federation of Teachers. That's also straight out of the ALEC-Koch brothers playbook. In fact, anti-unionism may be its founding principle.
(Map from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.)
By Joe Atkins, Labor South
Joe Atkins is a professor of journalism at the University of Mississippi and author of "Covering for the Bosses: Labor and the Southern Press." A veteran journalist, Atkins previously worked as the congressional correspondent with Gannett New Service's Washington bureau and with newspapers in North Carolina and Mississippi.