House approves innovative-school legislation

By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal

JACKSON – The House argued the contentious matter of charter schools Tuesday before finally passing legislation that would allow their establishment.
The innovative-school proposal, offered by House Education Chair Cecil Brown, D-Jackson, would include some of the characteristics of charter schools, but maintain more of the principles of traditional public schools.
The debate highlighted the intense divide in the House on the charter school issue. In recent years, charter school legislation has passed the Senate, but has been killed in the House Education Committee.
This year Brown was able to pass out of his committee and onto the floor his innovative-school program. But once it got to the floor Wednesday, the issue was debated for more than two hours. A majority of the House passed a more comprehensive charter school proposal before reversing course and finally agreeing on Brown’s original innovative-school program by an 88-30 margin.
Brown said his proposal would allow the parents to take over a failing school.
“For heaven’s sake, if parents can’t take over their school when it is failing, then what can we do?” Brown asked.
Charter schools, which have been embraced by President Barack Obama, vary from state to state. But in general terms, charter schools operate with public funds without having to adhere to many of the rules and regulations of traditional public schools.
For instance, charter schools often are allowed to take students from beyond the district boundaries of other schools and have their own governing structure.
Charter schools might have longer hours or operation and also might have a specific focus, such on the arts or on science.
Under Brown’s proposal, if a school is failing or at risk of failing for three consecutive years, a majority of the families in that school can petition the state Board of Education to make it an innovative school.
If that petition is granted, a five-member governing board, consisting of parents, will be elected to govern the innovative school.
Students from outside the boundaries of the school could not attend the innovative school, though students within the borders would be given permission to transfer to another school if they were not happy with the innovative approach.
The teachers in the innovative school would have to be certified, and all employees would continue to receive the same benefits of employees in a traditional public school.
Brown said roughly 25 percent of the state’s nearly 800 schools are failing or at-risk of failing.
“How can we do any worse?” he said during an earlier meeting on the issue. “Good grief alive, look at the test scores, look at the graduation rates and we have kids trapped there.”
While Brown argued something new must be tried, he fought efforts to make his proposal a true charter school bill. Rep. Herb Frierson, R-Poplarville, was successful at first in amending the legislation to make it closer to the Senate proposal – true charter school legislation.
Rep. Mark Formby, R-Picayune, speaking on behalf of the Frierson proposal, said, “If you want to start getting something different, you have to do something different.”
Frierson and Formby said the Brown proposal did not go far enough. Frierson prevailed, but as debate continued, members of the House leadership were able to persuade enough members to switch their votes back to the original Brown plan.
In the end, most Democrats supported the innovative-school approach while Republicans supported charter schools.
Still, some argued the Brown plan went too far and said the focus should be on improving all existing schools instead of trying something new.
“I voted against it because I think we need to let some of the things we put in place have time to work before we try something new,” said Rep. Jimmy Puckett, D-Amory.
For instance, Puckett and others pointed out the Legislature last year passed the Children First Act, which gives the state more authority to take over failing school districts. That program, they argued, has not had time to work.
It is likely that the issue will end up in conference where leaders will try to hammer out a compromise between the Senate’s charter school legislation and the House’s innovative school proposal.

Contact Bobby Harrison at (601) 353-3119 or bobby.harrison@djournal.com.

Breakdown on schools
Based on 2008-09 school year
State school 34
High performing 142
Successful 217
Academic watch 189
Low performing 6
At-risk of failing 158
Failing 53
Source: State Department of Education