The Challenges Facing Charter Schools in the Deep South

The Deep South has a long history of discrimination and segregation. These realities emerged from the practice of slavery and the brutal Jim Crow regimes that enforced separation in all aspects of Southern life, both in law (de jure) and in fact (de facto). The longstanding impact of these conditions are revealed in the area of education. The Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954 overturned Plessy v. Ferguson, which had established the doctrine of “separate but equal.” The move to desegregate public schools ignited controversy across the nation, and, to avoid smoothly transitioning to integrated schools, many states engaged in campaigns of “massive resistance.

This evasion often took the form of withdrawing white students en masse from public schools and establishing private schools or academies. In the contemporary moment, the stench of this abhorrent practice continues to shape education today. For many Black parents nationwide, the greatest challenge behind economic mobility is how best to educate their children.

In urban and rural districts, the choices are stark: either a failing public school system or a charter school. In Clarksdale, Mississippi, these issues and educational challenges are especially evident.

Clarksdale, Mississippi has recently become ground zero for the ongoing charter school debate. Located in the Mississippi Delta, one of the poorest areas in the country, Clarksdale is a product of the post-Brown siphoning of white students and resources from the district. In some ways, Black parents find themselves between the proverbial “rock and a hard place.” They are caught between the desire and need to ensure that public education provides fair and equally funded education for all and the search for options that ensure their children the best chance for success.

The Clarksdale Collegiate Academy, which opened in 2018, represents an attempt to address these issues. Founded by Amanda Johnson, an African American educator, It serves students from kindergarten through third grade with plans to add one grade per academic year. The school leadership plans to grow from its current 150 students to 675 students enrolled in grades one through eight.

However, the charter school faced massive resistance from the surrounding community. Much of the opposition came from Black parents who feared Johnson’s institute would replicate the same inequities in educational access currently plaguing the area.

The opposition was led by the Clarksdale School Board and a group called Advocates for Public Education made up of parents and educators opposed to the school. This group has also joined the Southern Poverty and Law Center in an amicus brief designed to overturn Mississippi’s law on charter schools, according to The Hechinger Report.

Clarksdale Municipal School District, like most public-school systems, has its share of challenges. The community engaged in massive resistance to desegregation until Alexander v. Holmes County Board of Education in 1969, after which white flight immediately ensued. White students vanished into thin air — or rather, into private academies. In their wake, they left behind segregated public schools, dwindling resources, and stark inequities.

Amanda Johnson, a Little Rock, Arkansas native, arrived in Clarksdale in 2010. A veteran of Teach for America and the KIPP Foundation, Johnson began to lay the groundwork for a charter school. Once open, her school immediately assumed a college preparatory focus, with college pennants lining the hallways. The school’s curriculum is also heavily focused on using metrics to track student progress, measuring the acquisition and retention of basic skills through testing. The school year at Clarksdale Collegiate is also three weeks longer than the schools of its local district, according to The Hechinger Report.

Johnson has also increased the amount of money she spends per pupil through private funds. Compared to the $8,424 per student spent by the Clarksdale Public School system, she has the resources to spend $17,000 per student for her 145 students. She also pays her teachers more than 5 percent above the Coahoma County average and her instructional assistants more than double the state average of $12,500.

By all accounts, Clarksdale Collegiate is a new type of charter school. It focuses on addressing the needs of the local community, providing quality education by increasing per-pupil spending, adequate salaries for staff, and serving underserved populations.

Furthermore, during its first year, the kindergartners of the school scored in the 78th Percentile in reading and 81st in Math on the Measures of Academic Progress, demonstrating real and measurable progress. The school’s future looks bright as 68 people have applied for the 15 open staff positions and the school has a kindergarten waiting list of 88 applications for the 2019-2020 school year.

About the Author

Stephen G. Hall is a sections editor for The North Star. He is a historian specializing in 19th and 20th century African American and American intellectual, social and cultural history and the African Diaspora. Hall is the author of A Faithful Account of the Race: African American Historical Writing in Nineteenth-Century America and is working on a new book exploring the scholarly production of Black historians on the African Diaspora from 1885 to 1960.