Racial Divide Seen in Miss. Debate Over Charter Schools, Reform

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Mississippi lawmaker Kenneth Wayne Jones, a Democrat, briefly became a political pariah last winter when he voted in favor of a proposal to expand charter schools in his state. He was the only African-American state senator to support the bill, which most members of Mississippi’s legislative Black Caucus disavowed. Jones liked the idea of expanded school options for families, but he also understood his colleagues’ mistrust.

“You’ve got conservative Republicans all of a sudden showing a lot of concern about the education of African-American children, while in the same breath they are denying them health care,” Jones said.

This winter, charter supporters will make their fifth attempt in five years to bring charters to Mississippi, one of a dwindling number of states without a real charter school law. (The state has an existing law so restrictive that no charters have opened.)

But the deep-rooted skepticism of the state’s black leadership remains one of the biggest obstacles to bipartisan support for charters in Mississippi and throughout the South, where powerful white Democrats are a disappearing breed. It also speaks to broader mistrust among black officials nationwide — particularly those who came of age before or during the civil rights movement — toward contemporary school reform efforts they believe are being imposed by outsiders on low-income, minority communities.

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