House bill may offer charter compromise

By Chris Kieffer/NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – As Mississippi’s charter school debate proceeds, the bill passed by the state House early Thursday morning appears to have a broader coalition of support.
That version got a key endorsement on Wednesday afternoon from the school-improvement advocacy organization The Parents Campaign after it added a provision to prohibit for-profit companies from managing charter school operations.
Executive Director Nancy Loome on Thursday afternoon said she was pleased legislators responded to requests by the organization’s members.
“Our position all along has been we want to get really high-quality charter schools into areas where children are trapped in chronically underperforming schools,” Loome said.
Meanwhile, Forest Thigpen, president of the conservative-leaning Mississippi Center for Public Policy, said the House bill wasn’t exactly what he wanted to see, but that he was glad it passed.
“I’m happy the House finally got the chance to vote for charter schools,” Thigpen said, noting the proposal died in a House committee last year after passing the Senate. “We would like for all parents to have the ability to send their children to schools that best meet their needs, but the House bill is a good start.”
The location of charter schools is expected to be among the biggest points of contention between the two chambers. The House bill gives school boards in districts rated A, B and C the ability to veto charter schools, while the Senate only does so for A and B districts.
Like Thigpen, Erika Berry of the Mississippi Coalition for Public Charter Schools would like to see charter schools allowed in C districts. At the same time, she was happy to see the legislation move forward.
“The good thing about the House bill is it is a lot farther along than what we were last year,” Berry said. “In the House, that says the Speaker did a good job of talking to legislators, asking what reservations they had, listening to them and being reasonable about meeting their expectations. That is the beauty of this process.”
“…We would like to see C districts included because we know there are too many students in failing schools that are part of a district with a C rating.”
The Parents Campaign has advocated for charter schools to be limited to school zones that are rated D or F. Loome said Thursday that the organization is urging senators to support the House bill as it is.
“We need to make sure the Senate agrees to the features in the bill,” Loome said. “This is what will make sure the schools that come in are high-quality schools. Mississippi children don’t need more failing schools, and it is important we learn from the mistakes other states have made, and it needs to come out of conference looking like the House bill.”
School district superintendents Gearl Loden of Tupelo, Jimmy Weeks of Lee County and Scott Cantrell of Monroe County each said of the two bills, they prefer the House version to the Senate one.
“In reviewing each of the bills, there are some substantive differences,” Loden said. “I hope the House does not sacrifice two very important items – focusing the charter schools in D and F districts and being sure they are managed by non-profit organizations – in order to have a charter school bill.”
Weeks, whose district currently has a C rating, said the district has not given up on its five schools rated D and F. The district also has four A and B schools.
“Those schools are not lost causes,” Weeks said. “Those communities are not lost causes. We need every child we can have on our testing roles to help bring those levels up.”
Sam Bounds, executive director of the Mississippi Association of School Superintendents, also said he prefers the House bill, although he still has concerns with it. Those include an item that charter school administrators would not need to be certified by the state.
He also wants to be sure virtual charter schools are not allowed and said he doesn’t want to see public schools lose money if students from private schools attend charters. Right now, the bills state public schools would pay a per-pupil amount for all students who live in their district and attend a charter school.
“Where is that money going to come from?” Bounds said. “I think it would be absolutely disastrous if they take it from the local schools.”
Grant Sowell of Tupelo’s Tea Party has been an outspoken proponent of charter schools, saying the more choices parents have for education the better.
Sowell said on Thursday the House bill did not have everything he wanted to see, but he could accept it.
“I don’t think anyone from either side will get the perfect bill,” he said. “Sometimes I think compromise is good.”
chris.kieffer@journalinc.com