By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal
JACKSON – The defeat of charter school legislation in the House Education Committee on Tuesday sent shock waves through the Capitol that could reverberate into a special session within the regular session.
Almost before the committee adjourned after defeating the bill 16-15, Gov. Phil Bryant sent out a news release saying he was “considering” calling a special session to take up the issue.
And on the other side of the Capitol, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and Senate Education Chairman Gray Tollison, R-Oxford, huddled to discuss whether a bill pending in the Senate could be amended to include the charter school language.
“I will not give up on my goal of providing every kid in Mississippi an opportunity for a better life, and Chairman Tollison and I are working together to find solutions to change the status quo,” Reeves said.
The vote Tuesday had been delayed almost a week, but the House Republican leadership’s efforts to garner enough committee votes fell short. Five Republicans voted to kill the legislation, while two Democrats favored it.
“It was a tough vote for everybody,” said Rep. William Tracy Arnold, R-Booneville, who voted yes. He said children in poor performing districts “need a choice. This is still America.”
The legislation would allow charter schools anywhere in the state if approved by a specially created state Authorizing Board. But local school boards in Successful, High Performing and Star districts could veto their creation.
While supporters said students in poor districts need a choice, opponents said charter schools would siphon money and the best students from traditional public schools. Charters are publicly funded but are allowed more flexibility.
“Basically, the bill did not meet the needs of what we have here in Mississippi,” said Rep. Nick Bain, D-Corinth. Bain and Rep. Steve Massengill, R-Hickory Flat, were the two Northeast Mississippi members to vote against the bill in committee. Joining Arnold in voting for it were Reps. Randy Boyd, R-Mantachie, and Brad Mayo, R-Oxford.
After the meeting, there was a commotion in the committee room as a female spectator was heard calling someone “a prostitute.” It was reported to Capitol police that a member who voted against the charter school bill was pushed by the same woman. The member who was allegedly accosted, Rep. Reecy Dickson, D-Macon, refused to meet with the media afterward.
Rep. Chuck Espy, D-Clarksdale, one of the few black members to support charter schools, took a point of personal privilege later on the House floor to say such behavior “is not acceptable.”
Rep. Pat Nelson, R-Southaven, who along with two other DeSoto County Republicans voted no in committee, said if a similar bill comes to the House from the Senate, he might vote for it on the floor if he is assured it will go to the governor. He said he opposed the bill in committee because he feared it would be further changed later in the process by House leaders who support a more far-reaching charter school bill.