By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal
JACKSON – The Senate Education Committee, one day after meeting behind closed doors with Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves for more than an hour to discuss charter school legislation, took less than 20 minutes Tuesday to pass the bill.
The voice vote in favor of the charter school legislation was expected. Last year the Senate passed a similar bill allowing charter schools, which are publicly funded but exempt from many regulations governing traditional public schools.
Last year the legislation died in the House.
Like last year’s legislation, the bill passed by the Senate Education Committee and expected to be taken up by the full Senate today, is broad, allowing an unlimited number of charter schools statewide and creating a new governmental entity to approve them.
Under the plan, school boards in districts accredited at the A and B level by the state Board of Education could veto charter schools from being developed within their boundaries. Many Northeast Mississippi legislators have said in recent days they would support charter schools only in D and F districts.
A section allowing virtual, or online, charter schools, supported by the legislative leadership, was removed from the bill in committee.
The committee met for about 20 minutes Tuesday in a crowded committee room to pass the bill to the floor of the Senate. But on Monday, the Senate Education Committee met with Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves for more than an hour in an unannounced meeting to discuss the legislation.
The Legislature has historically exempted itself from the state’s open meetings law. But legislative rules require committee meetings to be announced by the chairman.
“I thought we had public committee meetings,” said Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory. “Why did they have the need to meet in secret? That is not the way we do things.”
Sen. David Jordan, D-Greenwood, a member of the Education Committee, said he got a phone call saying the lieutenant governor, an outspoken charter school advocate, wanted to meet with him.
“I guess most of us (members of the committee) met with the lieutenant governor,” he said. “I didn’t know what the meeting was about when I got there.”
Laura Hipp, a spokesman for Reeves, said, “Lieutenant Governor Reeves meets with senators in his office all the time to discuss legislation, and he will continue to do so.”
Senate Education Chair Gray Tollison, R-Oxford, said the meeting was held as a courtesy to provide members a copy of the bill so they could look at it overnight before Tuesday morning’s vote.
The bill was made available to committee members, but not to the general public.
Asked if the meeting violated the chamber’s own rules, Tollison said, “There was not any intention to do that.”