School reform southern style

My friend, Kevin F. Gilbert, President of the Mississippi Association of Educators (NEA affiliate), issued the statement below on the proposed charter school legislation now being considered in our state. I share it with you as a cautionary tale. Here’s a contextual note: Mississippi is a right-to-work state; so union membership cannot be required as a condition of employment, and collective bargaining is illegal. Teachers who choose to join either the NEA or AFT affiliate do so voluntarily and pay dues out-of-pocket.

The Mississippi Association of Educators (MAE) has always been, and will continue to be a supporter of innovation in public education. Decades ago the MAE announced its support for the charter schools that would foster innovation so that an entire school district could reap the benefits of strategies that work and improve student achievement.

Although the current legislation proposed is being billed as a “tool” to promote student success, it is instead a direct attack on educational quality, on teachers and the education profession in Mississippi. Passage of this legislation would harm the education our children receive and ultimately our state.

Embedded in the legislation is a clause that allows for at least 50% of the staff of charter schools to be uncertified according to the Senate bill, or it allows for no certification of teachers or administrators as stated in the House bill. Having a qualified teacher in the classroom is the bedrock of school reform. If we allow schools to be established without certified, qualified teachers we severely damage the education they can provide children and educational outcomes will decline. Yes, schools need flexibility, but around bureaucracy, not core principles.

Legislators should recall the “emergency license” dilemma the state faced not so long ago. Then the state had a large number of “emergency licensed” teachers. Many districts had to send letters home to parents informing them that their children were being taught by “unqualified” teachers. Mississippi has been trying to undo this embarrassment ever since—until the introduction of this legislation.

Most shocking in this legislation is the bold admission by its proponents of their desire to strip not tenure (which teachers in Mississippi have never had anyway), but due process.

Another provision in the legislation exempts charter school teachers from the Education Employees Procedure Law (EEPL). It would virtually eliminate due process for educators in charter schools.

Consider that the EEPL already has a provision that eliminates due process for new teachers for two years, and one year for experienced teachers new to a school district. So, administrators have the right to remove teachers for two years without due process.

The right to due process is granted not only in the Mississippi Constitution, but also the United States Constitution. There is a process in place that safeguards against ineffective teaching. What is forgotten when administrators say, “Charter schools need to be granted the flexibility to hire and fire,” is the role politics play in every school district.

Like similar measures around the country, the proposed legislation here seeks to undermine the long-standing promise to educators that they could retire with dignity in exchange for a lifetime of service to children in one of the lowest-paying states in the nation.

Finally, a clause in the legislation would exempt charter school teachers from the Public Employees Retirement System. No one has given any rational explanation for this. In a state where teachers have not had but one pay raise in six years, where many of our educators were furloughed and/or had to relinquish their local supplements, where all saw an increase in not only their contribution to PERS, but also an increase in insurance deductibles, this is a stunning insult. For the first time in the history of Mississippi, the average teacher salary went down. Teachers’ small pensions allow them some measure of dignity after a lifetime of service to children and the state. Denying them access to that dignity is simply a way to hurt teachers, not improve teaching or our public schools.

Yes, Mississippi needs innovative charter schools that discover highly effective ways of teaching and import those discoveries to all schools. But we cannot abandon what we know is working well—namely highly qualified teachers—and we cannot use charters to disguise an attack on teachers and their profession.

What the MAE statement did not address is the other elephant in the room here: That this legislation might be used to make public education funds available to the extensive network of predominantly white private schools established in defiance of the orders to desegregate the public schools. These bills, of course, are being touted as a way to help parents in school districts whose schools are consistently labeled as failing. Many of those schools are in the Delta region—the state’s poorest section—where the legacy of the resistance to desegregation has left those schools administratively crippled and under-resourced for decades. Yet, this plan is the key education legislation being promoted by the new Republican majority in our state legislature and state officers. They argue for “innovation” and “choice” as if it teachers have been the ones standing in the way of success in our public schools, when the opposite has actually been true.

The first step to real education reform in Mississippi and the rest of the nation should be to finally provide quality, fully-funded public education for every child led by a modern, respected teaching profession.

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