Mississippi legislators are considering a proposal to strengthen the state’s charter school law. This is great news for a state with the weakest charter school policy among the 41 states (and D.C.) that have them. However, because the state Senate Education Committee has moved to ban virtual charter schools, the scope of this new policy is significantly limited.
As the Center for Education Reform reports, Mississippi has allowed charter schools since 2010 but has no charter schools in operation. Its law is considered “in name only” and was merely enacted in order to be eligible for federal Race to the Top funding. The law allows for failing schools to be converted to charters and limits the number of conversions to 12 within six years.
Mississippi also requires the State Board of Education, rather than an independent board, to approve charter schools—a “fox-guarding-the-henhouse” type policy. The new proposal would put into place an independent charter school board to authorize would-be charters, and while “preference will be given to the formation of charter schools that would serve at-risk students…[it] does not prohibit parents from starting charters in districts that have public schools with high performance levels.”
Unfortunately, while the original proposal included a provision for virtual charter schools, the committee included language that “expressly prohibits the payment of state funds to virtual public charter schools…and/or their management organizations.”
With the growing possibilities that online learning affords students, this move by the committee is shortsighted and limits students’ educational options. Online learning has the potential to adapt to students’ unique learning needs. As Harvard business professor Clayton Christensen explains, online learning provides the opportunity to “customize learning by allowing students to progress at different paces and through different paths as needed.”
Lance Izumi, education policy director at the Pacific Research Institute, tells how a California student benefited from a virtual charter school:
Mark McLean, a middle-school student in Northern California, has autism and was performing poorly when he attended his neighborhood public school, which failed to meet his special needs. When his parents enrolled him in a virtual charter school, however, his scores on the state tests skyrocketed to the “proficient” and “advanced” levels because the online curriculum adapted to his individual needs.
Additionally, virtual education gives students flexibility in when and where they learn and allows students access to courses that may not otherwise be available in their limited geographical area.
Mississippi’s move to strengthen charter schools is a step in the right direction. However, shutting a door to online learning means shutting the door to a world of educational options for students. Izumi notes:
Government regulations…reduce the availability of digital-learning opportunities to the students who want and need them. This is a tragedy, because such opportunities help students excel.… Digital learning is not just the wave of the future; it is the tidal wave of the future. Government and special interests need to get out of the way and let this future in so that parents can…choose the type of education that best meets the individual needs of their children.
Online learning is reaching more than a million students across the nation. Mississippi need not limit itself.