Charter school bill still faces House hurdles

By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal Jackson Bureau

JACKSON – Charter school legislation, pending before the full House, most likely will have to be further amended to pass, various representatives agree.
House Education Chair John Moore, R-Brandon, said he has known all along that it would be a long process to develop the complex legislation.
“Some other changes will have to be made,” he said. “It is hard to determine right now what changes will be made.”
Without those changes, many House members, including some Republicans, say they might not be able to vote for the bill when it is taken up on the floor within the next two weeks.
“The House leadership knows it has to amend the bill,” said Rep. George Flaggs, D-Vicksburg. “It won’t pass like it is.”
Strengthening the state’s anemic charter school law during the 2012 session has been listed as a priority of Gov. Phil Bryant, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and Speaker Philip Gunn, all Republicans.
But last week the bill barely made it out of the House Education Committee by a surprisingly close 14-12 vote. Several Republicans on the committee voted against the proposal and some Democrats who were viewed as likely opponents of the legislation left before the vote was taken, presumably thinking it would pass by a comfortable margin.
Among those expressing concerns about the legislation are some Northeast Mississippi freshmen Republicans.
While not saying he would vote against the bill if it was not changed, Rep. Steve Massengill, R-Hickory Flat, said, “I think it needs a lot of amendments. I don’t like successful districts being included, and allowing the charter schools to have zero teachers with certification. Those are two big things with me.”
Under the legislation as it passed the House, charter schools could be created in successful and low-performing districts. Plus, the charter schools would not be required to hire any certified teachers. Under the Senate proposal, a charter school would be required to have 50 percent of its teachers with state certification.
Those arguing against certification say the charter schools need the authority to hire non-traditional people, who might have expertise in an area, as teachers. Others argue the Senate bill requiring at least 50 percent of its teachers to be certified provides a healthy mix.
Another Northeast Mississippi freshman, Rep. Randy Boyd, R-Mantachie, voiced similar concerns, and added the virtual charter school component needed to be removed from the legislation. The Senate proposal also had the online or virtual component, which presumably would allow students to take all their classes from home, but it was amended with wide bipartisan support to prohibit virtual charter schools.
The House bill as currently written would allow a limited number of virtual charter schools.
Charter schools vary widely in their definition. Currently, 42 states, including Mississippi, allow charter schools. In general, they are public schools that operate outside of the traditional local governing boards, and are not subjected to many of the rules and regulations governing traditional public schools.
But they are funded with taxpayer dollars and adhere to most state accountability standards. In general, the school signs a charter with the state and the student with the schools. If the terms of the charter are not lived up to, the school can be closed.
The Mississippi Economic Council, the state’s leading business organization, has endorsed the charter school concept, minus the virtual school component, for the state’s chronically low-performing districts. Some charter school proponents want no limits placed on where charter schools can be located. They say all parents should have a choice for their children.
Others argue any charter school is a bad idea because it takes money away from already underfunded traditional public schools and has the potential to take away the best students.
Both the House and Senate versions of the legislation allow charter schools in low-performing and successful districts. The Senate version allows school boards in High Performing and Star districts to veto any charter school within their boundaries while the House proposal bans the entities in top-performing districts.
Another difference is who will authorize the charter schools. Both the House and Senate versions establish a new statewide authorizing board. The House version also allows local school boards to authorize the charter schools.
When the full Senate voted on the proposal last month, many Northeast Mississippi Democrats voted no, saying there was not a groundswell of support for charter schools among their constituents.
In the House, Rep. Nick Bain, D-Corinth, said, “I don’t have a problem supporting charter schools. I just want to make sure they are specific with narrow guidelines and not opening Pandora’s Box.”
bobby.harrison@journalinc.com