Charters, pre-K pass major hurdles

By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal

JACKSON – Charter school and pre-K legislation prevailed Tuesday in the state Legislature, but appointed school superintendents did not fare as well.
Charter schools, one of the most contentious issues and a priority for the Republican leadership of the Legislature and Gov. Phil Bryant, passed an important hurdle when the House approved a charter school proposal, 62-55.
The Legislature is in the stage of the process where it is voting on agreements reached between House and Senate leaders on bills that passed the two chambers earlier in differing forms.
One of the first proposals taken up Tuesday by the House was the charter school agreement reached late Monday.
The agreement was essentially the proposal passed earlier this session by the House after hours of debate that ended at 1 a.m. Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, who presides over the Senate, had advocated for a more expansive charter school bill, but House leaders said there was considerable opposition to charter schools in their chamber and would only agree to a more restricted version.
The House passed that proposal Tuesday with no debate after Rep. Charles Busby, R-Pascagoula, one of the House negotiators, told the body the agreement was the same bill that chamber had passed earlier. But the proposal did receive less support than it did when it passed the House earlier in the session by a 64-56 margin
After the vote, House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, said, “Governing is about compromise. It is about getting the best product while maintaining the majority of votes. We have accomplished that in the House this session. I thank the lieutenant governor and the Senate for working with us to pass this bill and enact the other meaningful education reforms this session.”
The legislation will give A, B and C districts veto authority over allowing charter schools to be located within their boundaries and will prevent students from crossing district lines to attend charter schools.
The Senate favored allowing only A and B districts to have veto authority and allowing students to cross district lines, but Reeves and his negotiators agreed to accept the House position to ensure charter legislation passed this year.
Charter schools receive public funds, but do not have to adhere to many of the regulations and governance of traditional public schools.
The Senate is expected to take up and pass the legislation today.
Both chambers passed legislation creating a pre-kindergarten program, the Senate by a 37-11 vote and the House by 97-17. Under the program, the state Department of Education would set standards for consortiums that would include local school districts, Head Start centers and private child-care providers for a voluntary program for 4-year-olds.
State funds would be provided to match on a dollar for dollar basis the effort of the local consortium. The Legislature has appropriated $3 million for the program. Plus, state tax credits totaling $3 million can be provided to corporations or people contributing to the operation of the consortiums.
Despite heated debate in both chambers, the program passed by a wide margin. The opposition came from conservative Republicans who expressed concerns about creating another government program and about how the program would grow in costs.
“I am very concerned we are creating a large bureaucracy,” said Rep. Rita Martinson, R-Madison.
Senate Education Chair Gray Tollison, R-Oxford, said research shows good pre-K programs lead to better student achievement in later grades – especially in rural areas. He said various business groups supported the legislation as economic development.
The proposal had the strong backing of Reeves and Gunn.
A compromise where superintendents in school districts with an average daily attendance of less than 1,800 would be appointed was defeated in the House, 66-52.
The House leadership might try to revive that legislation today.
Proposals advocated by Gov. Phil Bryant, such as tougher standards for teachers, an enhanced literacy effort in the early grades, a merit teacher pay pilot program and scholarships to attract top students to teaching also are expected to be approved by today as the Legislature aims to end the session this week.
bobby.harrison@journalinc.com