Thursday, June 10, 2010

Clarion Ledger Article from 3/6/10: "Try Charter Schools Experiment Where Others Failing"

This was my first piece as a guest columnist for The Clarion Ledger. This article was published on March 6, 2010, page 9A. Here's the text:


In January, three University of Mississippi undergraduates advocated for charter schools before the Mississippi House Committee on Education out of concern for the crisis of education in the state. The Public Policy Leadership majors, Chelsea Caveny, Cortez Moss and Alex McLelland, met resistance to partial measures for progress.

Aside from a few vocal opponents, the general response from Republicans in the room was positive and some Democrats were cautiously open to charter schools. The most vocal opponents of charter school legislation worried about the children who stay behind in traditional schools. One representative exclaimed: “Separate but unequal!”

I can understand the resistance. If charter schools only help some, are they not institutions that tell others to wait? Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had to explain time and time again “why we can’t wait.” He was a great opponent of the numbing gradualism of his day. Being patient is not something suffering people can easily stomach. Despite this powerful motivation, however, the objection to gradualism is misapplied when it comes to charter schools. Charter schools represent the potential, certainly not a guarantee, for substantial progress in education in the state.

At the committee meeting in January, three worries arose. First, if charter schools are the answer, why not overhaul the whole system to follow their method? In response to this concern, the issue is not a desire for progress to be slow. Rather, what is needed is sincere experimentation. In different states and regions, different methods work well or poorly. Charter schools need fine-tuning. Good experimenters, furthermore, don’t stop after one try. Once a model is successful in our state, we should replicate it then and then only, as the urban prep schools did in Chicago.

The second worry that our legislators raised was that charter schools may not work as well in rural areas. There are clear exceptions to this concern, however, such as the KIPP schools (Knowledge Is Power Programs) which have locations in Helena-West Helena, Ark. What seemed to be lacking in the legislators’ responses to the students’ presentation was the will to try, to experiment with new ideas. Innovation and change require openness of mind to the possibilities that others may not have attempted.

A final concern came up. In the accusing charge of “separate but unequal!” was the reasonable worry people have about achievement gaps between white and minority students. This week, the House version of the charter school legislation made sure to emphasize that charters could be established only in replacing schools with a three-year track record of failure. This requirement would ensure that charters be created only where schools most need help, not simply as alternatives for already advantaged students.

Charter school legislation is moving forward for consideration. What is crucial for the future of Mississippi, I believe, is that we regain the will to experiment and to try new ideas. Charter school legislation may only be a partial measure, a step in a larger plan.

With good legislation written to allay the worries people have about charters, however, the charter school initiative could represent a great step forward and in the right direction.

Dr. Eric Thomas Weber is assistant professor of Public Policy Leadership at the University of Mississippi, expressing only his own point of view in this guest column. His second book, Morality, Leadership, and Public Policy, will be released in 2011.


I've got a scan of this article here, posted on my Web site in case you'd like to see the original in print. If you'd like to visit my Web site, this link will take you to the main page.


  1. Not sure I remember where I read this, but I remember an article that said that charter schools help public schools as well, because they decrease the student load by more than they decrease the funding, leaving more funds/student than previously.

  2. I hadn't heard that before. If you get a link on that, I'd love to see the article. Post it here if you get a chance or email it to me. Thanks for posting.