By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal Jackson Bureau
JACKSON – The Republican House and Senate leadership is on the verge of doing something that has not happened often in recent years in the Mississippi Legislature – expand state government.
In both the House and Senate versions of bills expanding the authority for charter schools to locate in the state, a new agency is created. A separate board is formed to authorize charter schools, which will receive public funds to operate outside the governance and many of the guidelines of traditional public schools in return for the promise of meeting specified performance levels.
“It (new board) is duplication,” said Rep. Cecil Brown, D-Jackson, who has fought unsuccessfully to eliminate the authorizing board and give the authority to approve and regulate charter schools to the existing state Board of Education.
“It makes no sense in the world,” Brown added.
But House and Senate leaders said their research reveals that the states with the most successful charter schools have an independent authorizing board. That is not the case, however, in Arkansas where House and Senate leaders have cited the KIPP Delta charter school in Helena as an example of what they want to accomplish in Mississippi. The Arkansas Board of Education authorizes charter schools in the state.
House and Senate leaders also said the Mississippi Board of Education already has too much to do without having the added responsibility for charter schools.
Plus, because the board is invested in traditional public schools, “they would have no reason to authorize charter schools,” said House Education Chair John Moore, R-Brandon.
“They would have a built-in bias,” said Senate Education Chair Gray Tollison, R-Oxford. He said that isn’t meant as a criticism of the existing board, but just the reality of how government works.
Brown countered that the board’s nine members are appointed by the governor, lieutenant governor and House speaker, whom all outspoken charter school supporters.
Under the House and Senate proposals, the seven-member authorizing board would be composed of three appointees each by the governor and lieutenant governor and one by the state superintendent of education. The speaker would not have an appointment.
The existing state Board of Education was created via a constitutional amendment in the 1980s. That amendment says, “The Board shall manage and invest school funds.”
While it has not been discussed in legislative debate, there is a contention by some that creating another board that would “manage and invest school funds” could be a violation of the state Constitution.
“I think you will see litigation over the authorizing board if it becomes law,” Brown predicted.
Under the bills, local and state per pupil expenditures would follow any student enrolled in a charter school. The authorizing board would receive 3 percent of those funds.
An estimate compiled by the state Department of Education puts the revenue for the authorizing board at $250,000 annually based on 15 charter schools each with an enrollment of 100 students. Moore’s House bill allows the authorizing board to approve 15 charter schools per year. The Senate version puts no limits on the number that could be created.
The legislation instructs the new board to hire an executive director/general counsel and other staff. The bills do not specify how much the executive director would make, though a full-time employee in a similar position in the state would normally have benefits and salary totaling at least $100,000 annually.
Rep. Sherra Lane, D-Waynesboro, argues that if the authorizing board is created, it should be funded through a direct state appropriation instead of taking 3 percent of state and local money designated to pay for the students’ education.
“I urge you not to take away from students and give it to a board,” Lane said during floor debate on the issue last week.
An analysis performed by the Legislature’s Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review Committee at Lane’s request estimated that if a 658-pupil charter school were created in the Jackson Municipal School District, the authorizing board would receive $112,435 annually in state and local funds from the charter school to pay for staff. By the same token, if a 420-student charter school was created in Lane’s Wayne County District, the authorizing board would receive $74,181.
On the flip side, Brown questioned how the authorizing board could exist if none or not enough charter schools are created to fund the board and the staff, including an executive director who by law also would have to be an attorney.
In other words, according to Brown, the authorizing board would have a vested interest in creating more charter schools to fund its existence.