The declining Jackson population and increased leeching of JPS resources by charter schools are forcing the district to consider closing at least 16 schools later next year. Schools facing the possibility of closure and consolidation include 13 elementary schools including high-scoring Obama Elementary School. The district is also targeting two middle schools, Chastain and Whitten. South Jackson’s Wingfield High School is the only 12th grade-level school up for closure.
“… our job is to optimize opportunities and to optimize the resources that we have for educating our scholars and serving families,” said JPS Superintendent Dr. Errick Greene, who presented the board with the plan to either approve or reject at its Dec. 5 meeting.
Board President Ed Sivak questioned closing schools with envious A ratings, including Obama Elementary, which ranked among Mississippi’s top elementary schools. Greene suggested that brick and mortar buildings, including the one featuring an emblematic façade of the nation’s first Black president, are not the source of A-ratings. Greene said the district would work to keep successful staff with their students, but there is no guarantee jobs will not be lost in the shuffle. The district has 46 schools, plus five specialty schools, and 16 closures represent a shutdown of more than 30 percent of district facilities.
Parents were outraged at the prospect, and students submitted video at the last board meeting, pleading with the board to reconsider the shuttering. Greene warned the Board that the district needs a plan to account for plummeting enrollment, however.
The district is losing roughly 1,000 students every year, while maintenance costs for aging buildings are a drain on resources. Information from the superintendent’s office claims schools on the chopping block need $174 million in renovations, and the district could avoid $11 million in insurance, utilities, and annual maintenance if it jettisons more than a quarter of its campus. Critics say this is akin to saying a woman won’t need nearly as many calories if she’d remove her legs. But Greene is adamant that the legs must go.
“At some point, you run out of money,” said Greene. “You’ve got to start prioritizing and you have to think about where that money has been spent.”
But a significant portion of that money went to new charter schools, according to Sivak. “We've lost $48 million to charters since they came into the district,” Sivak told BGX.
Every time a JPS student transfers out of the district and into a charter school, the money funding the child’s education follows the child. Combined with the additional financial loss through enrollment decline, district payments to charter schools amount to almost 50% of $107 million in losses since 2016. Total average financial shortfalls from falling enrollment and charter school payments are about $12 million per year.
Charter schools entered the scene after considerable controversy and legislative battle. Charter advocates demanded more options for students at failing schools, while public school allies warned that charters would be a drain on limited school resources if the legislature did not supply additional funding for opening and maintaining new charter school educators and administrators. Legislators passed the “Mississippi Charter Schools Act” making charter schools possible in 2013, but of course failed to fully finance the state’s public school funding formula almost every year since the 1990s. This means the burden of supplying a charter school’s operating budget largely falls to its district host. Additionally, state laws restricting charters to “D” or “F” rated districts ensure charters will only attach to districts already wracked by funding issues—because “F” grades and poverty come in pairs.
This made the city of Jackson a prime target for charter proposals. Districts in the towns of Greenwood, Greenville, and Yazoo are also vulnerable to colonization, but Jackson currently bears the brunt of new schools, and without adequate, additional state funding to support them. All five of its charter schools divert money from JPS’ ailing budget, which itself is funded by a rapidly-draining reservoir of taxpayers.
Critics question the results. One of the big arguments behind the schools was their independence of the district board, which allows more freedom to adopt innovative curriculums and novel education tactics. But aside from allowing schools to duck teacher unions and avoid paying into the state’s underfunded retirement system, charters currently aren’t delivering huge dividends.
Joel E. Smilow Charter School earned an “F” from the Mississippi Department of Education this year. This represents a dramatic drop from a “B” in 2022. Midtown Public Charter School dropped one level, from “D” to “F”, during that same period, as did Reimagine Prep Charter School and Smilow Prep Charter School, which both fell one level from “C” to “D”, according to state records.
Many schools are still struggling to return from the chaos of Covid-related mass closures and disruptions, but charter operators are also learning firsthand that academic failure has less to do with innovation, perseverance and talent and more to do with egregious poverty. Student life in the city of Jackson is further complicated by “concentrated poverty,” which even charter schools are failing to surmount.
Under current conditions, board members and parents are struggling to justify hollowing out and shuttering successful “A” schools like Obama Elementary School to sustain charter school mediocrity.
“I think that’s the stupidest idea they could have come up with,” said Jackson resident Nikki Livingston, who has one child in 12th grade and another in 4th Grade. “I mean, that’s Obama Elementary School. That’s a new school, and it’s one of the top schools, and you want to close it? That makes no sense.”