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What happened with school choice in our state?

Ten years ago, amid much fanfare, Mississippi’s state legislature passed a law to allow Charter Schools. A decade later, what do we have to show for it? Not much, if we are honest.

So far, a mere eight Charter Schools have been approved across the entire state. Of the 450,000 or so children in public education in our state, a minuscule number are enrolled in Charter Schools.

“Maybe that means there’s not much need for them?” some might suggest. Actually, there’s far greater demand for Charter Schools than there are places available.

Many families in Mississippi are happy with public education as it is – and not only those fortunate enough to live in ‘A’ rated school board districts such as Madison, De Soto or Rankin. The problem is those that are not satisfied. For all the talk about School Choice in our state, right now there are very few dissatisfied moms and dads can do about it unless they are prepared to opt out of public education altogether.

Opting out is precisely what has been happening. Approximately 25,000 schoolchildren have been taken out of the system entirely and are home-schooled. Well over 45,000 are now privately educated.

The precious few Charter Schools we are fortunate enough to have often done an extraordinary job. There just aren’t that many of them.

We have seen pathetically little progress toward school choice in our state – and it is time to be honest as to why.

Mississippi only has a tiny number of Charter Schools not because parents do not want them, but because the administrative state in our state will not permit them. The inappropriately named Charter School Authorizer Board has done a brilliant job of not authorizing Charter Schools. By my count, eight out of ten applications have been rejected.

School choice means much more than Charter Schools. Giving moms and dads the freedom to decide what kind of education best suits their child might mean Charter Schools, but it could mean a micro-school or using open enrollment to switch school districts.

But various attempts to allow open school enrollment between school districts died in committee in the state legislature, the chairman apparently unwilling to allow the issue further consideration. Why? A modest scheme that allows children with special needs a degree of choice has been watered down. Again, we need to ask why?

Conservatives hold a supermajority in our state, for goodness’ sake! So why is the Charter School Authorizer Board that conservatives appoint so unwilling to approve new schools? Why does a state legislature with a conservative super majority seem so reluctant to even allow votes on open enrollment or Charter School Authorizer reform?

If we are serious about School Choice in this state, we need to see the anti-School Choice agenda for what it is, whether it is declared or undeclared.

“Too many vested interests don’t want change” I keep being told. Indeed. There are plenty of people who earn a good living working in the education sector who don’t want School Choice. There seems to be no shortage of expert ‘educationalists’ who recoil at the idea of letting moms & dads decide. But that does not mean they are right.

The argument that giving parents more power leads to better education outcomes is irrefutable. The moral case for giving families control over their tax dollars is overwhelming.

We know that School Choice is opposed by many progressive activists and the left-wing media. So why would any conservative in our state want to make common cause with the hard left to prevent any serious extension of School Choice?

It is good that we have a dedicated “School Choice week” in our state, but it is not enough. Nor should we console ourselves with the occasional nod given to School Choice. Instead, we need to take on those holding back our children’s education.

Across many states in America, conservative leaders have created winning coalitions by promising to empower parents. In Florida, where Gov De Santis has emerged as a presidential contender, he made his name by extending School Choice for all. Betsy DeVos, who will soon be coming to speak in Jackson, led the fight for more parent power across America. In states where conservatives have advanced over the past two years, such as Virginia and North Carolina, it has been by making School Choice a central pillar of their platform.

Those that oppose School Choice in Mississippi might be many things, but they aren’t conservative.

Douglas Carswell is the President & CEO of the Mississippi Center for Public Policy.

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