Lessons from NOLA


courtesy Andre Perry

From the outside, Forest Hill High School is a picture of strength and prosperity. A far cry from the one-room schoolhouse that sat at its current location in the 1850s, the contemporary academic and athletic facility sits on more than 47 acres of land, and seems to have all the physical attributes parents and teenagers could want.

Inside, it’s a different story. Forest Hill High is failing students. The public school, which was built in 1989, received an “F” rating on its most recent state evaluation, as did almost a third of the schools in Jackson Public Schools. And now the district is faced with finding another superintendent after Cedrick Gray resigned on Nov. 1. Freddrick Murray, the chief academic officer for JPS high schools, has been named as the interim superintendent.

No one understands this struggle better than Sharolyn Miller, chief financial officer for Jackson Public Schools. She’s served four superintendents since being hired in 2004 and isn’t sure what’s next following Gray’s resignation. All summer, she struggled to fix a failing HVAC system the high school couldn’t afford—just as JPS found $600,000 for two new charter schools in the city.

“The downside is that half a million dollars that I could have put into HVAC systems in Forest Hill High School is gone,” Miller told me when I visited Jackson to learn more about why some dissatisfied public-school parents and state legislators are pushing charter alternatives.

Since that time, the district has run into a slew of new troubles, which proved to be Gray’s ouster. Charter schools competing for funding from a skimpy budget may be the least of the worries for whoever succeeds Gray.

JPS has problems: 21 failing schools, a 67.7 percent graduation rate and an average composite ACT score of 15.6. Low performance has been a constant. Undoubtedly, people will call for more charter schools in Mississippi. Many view them as an alternative to a system that will always fail families.

The district is under fire at a time when some are already pushing for an expansion of charter schools—public schools that are privately operated. Miller believes that it’s a mistake. There are now three charters in the state (all in Jackson), and Miller worries that more charters will continue draining much-needed funding from the already strained JPS budget and will eventually lead to school closures.

Because the district is funded on a per-pupil basis, Miller is right to be concerned. And based on years of experience watching neighboring New Orleans’ transformation to a nearly all-charter system, I can tell you that charter schools should also worry about how the state funds JPS.

Cutting your nose to spite your face is a common practice in education reform. Charters are a seemingly perverse compromise; too often education reformers turn a blind eye to inequities that stifle districts, supposedly to give parents alternatives.

That’s why I have some advice for the Mississippi Charter School Association: Don’t allow a financial storm to be your Hurricane Katrina, the disaster that led to dismantling the public school system in New Orleans. Don’t offer the trite language of “choice” as a solution.

Swapping out leaders is not enough. Jackson Public Schools must be given the chance—and the resources—to improve. Improvement will not just help standard public schools: Charter schools need a functioning, adequately funded district for their own long-term survival. A struggling JPS needs support. Districts, schools and unions don’t have to be broken up in order for charters to deliver what early rhetoric promoted: innovation.

“If the state put the same amount of effort and money into the public schools as they do in forming and supporting charter schools and all these alternatives, then we would function,” Miller told me.

I also can’t help wondering if expectations for Gray were unrealistic. It’s more realistic to evaluate the next superintendent on his or her ability to do more with less if the district continues to lose needed revenue. How far can any school rise when its floor funding continuously falls?

Jackson schools are grappling with the loss of about 1,000 students to other districts, private schools, charters and home schooling, along with an increase in the number of students who aged out, dropped out or graduated, compared to those entering the system.

Parents may be leaving because of the district’s performance, but JPS isn’t really given a chance to succeed. Last academic year, the district had to accommodate a mid-year cut of $1.3 million.

This school year, the district’s yearly allocation is approximately $9.6 million short. The chronic practice of underfunding schools, it seems, will continue.

Last year, former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove sued on behalf of 21 school districts, including JPS, to fully fund the budget formula every year; the judge ruled against him. The Mississippi Adequate Education Program is short by $172 million statewide for 2016-2017.

To their credit, JPS has shown an ability to do more with less. Last year, the graduation rate in JPS schools increased almost 3.5 percent. Discipline violations for freshmen have decreased by 2.5 percent. Attendance has gone up by 2.5 percent among ninth graders. In the last two years, the number of third graders who are proficient in reading has increased by 8 percent, Gray announced in a televised press conference last April.

Offering charters as an escape hatch isn’t innovative; finding ways to build capacity is. Learning new ways to do more with less—while commendable—isn’t very innovative, either.

Black districts have been stretching resources since Civil War reconstruction—just ask JPS. All children lose when schools don’t have the baseline-funding resources they need to educate them.

Mississippi already ranks at or near the bottom on education spending, as measured by the $8,130 it spends per-pupil, the most recent available census data shows. The state’s legislature hasn’t fully funded the formula (MAEP) that establishes the amount deemed necessary to provide an adequate education since 2008.

Charter schools receive roughly the same funding from the state as district schools, based on the number of students enrolled. Yet charter advocates also insidiously assert that they use their resources more wisely, with better results. This tendency gives conservative legislators, adverse to big-government, further ammunition to deny adequate funding to traditional districts like JPS.

In 2015, Reimagine Prep opened its doors to one class of fifth graders. Midtown Public started that same year, offering classes for fifth and sixth grades. The two charters earned a “D” and “F,” and JPS lost approximately 200 students—as well as the corresponding funding in per-pupil expenditure—to the charter operators. In August, Jackson’s third charter, Smilow Prep, opened with 125 fifth graders, so 289 students are currently enrolled in Jackson’s three charters.

Three charters may not seem like a lot, but keep in mind the charter wave that swept over New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina began with just five schools. Today, some 90 percent of New Orleans students attend charter schools.

Lawyers with the Southern Poverty Law Center, which is a social-justice group that fights for equal access to education, agree that charters present a risk. SPLC is suing Mississippi to block public funding of charters. The SPLC calculates JPS lost $1.85 million during the 2015-2016 academic year due to funds diverted to charters. The group maintains that if the Jackson school district loses additional students, it will lose the ability to adequately educate its children.

Charter schools should not present such problems to a well-managed school district, says Greg Richmond, president and CEO of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, which is an Atlanta-based group that promotes quality operations and oversight of charter schools.

“Some people will say that this is zero-sum game, that if some children are getting a better education, that must mean that other children are getting a worse education. I don’t believe that,” he said.

Richmond acknowledged that “there are some school districts that are in such bad shape financially that the opening of a new charter school might cause the whole district to collapse.” He urged officials to look at the impact on a district’s finances when they consider a proposal for a new charter school.

In the meantime, Miller has few choices at JPS. Two constants have been present since she was hired in 2004: leadership changes and budget cuts.

So what’s left to do?

“We patch until we can get other funds,” Miller said.

The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education, produced this story. Read more about Mississippi.


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