By Jeff Amy/The Associated Press
JACKSON, Mississippi (AP) — A charter school bill moving forward in the Mississippi House is more expansive than the one passed last week by the state Senate.
The bill, passed Monday by a House subcommittee, would not only create a new board to approve charter schools, but also would allow any of the state’s 152 local boards to approve charters in their districts. It would also allow the Mississippi Department of Education to convert existing schools to charters.
Sponsored by House Education Committee Chairman John Moore, R-Brandon, the measure would allow online charter schools, unlike the Senate version, which banned them under an amendment to the bill.
The House bill would not allow any local district to veto a charter approved by one of the statewide boards, while the Senate’s version allowed the state’s top-performing districts to opt out of having a charter. Moore’s bill would exempt not 50 percent of all teachers from state licensing requirements, instead exempting all teachers and administrators from such certification.
The House version also would give charter schools access to state facilities money, although such dollars have been scarce in recent years. It would also let individual charter schools decide whether they wanted to join the state pension system.
The subcommittee did adopt an amendment that makes the funding system for charter schools mirror the one approved in the Senate bill. The panel then unanimously approved the bill before its chairman, Rep. Chuck Espy, D-Clarksdale, walked the members through the bill. That reversal of the usual order of business came at the behest of Moore, who left just after the vote.
Advocates say that allowing schools relief from current rules in exchange for expectations for high performance will be a way to improve education in Mississippi, where some districts struggle with low student achievement and dropouts.
Forest Thigpen, president of the conservative-leaning Mississippi Center for Public Policy, said he liked the House bill because it didn’t give any district a veto over setting up a charter school.
“I think it opens up more opportunities for parents,” Thigpen said.
Thigpen said he wasn’t sure if every school board is up to approving and overseeing a charter school. When asked if he thought the typical Mississippi school district would be a high quality authorizer, he answered “probably not.”
“I would have been fine if they had limited the authorizers,” he said.
The new board would be limited only to authorizing new charter schools. It would be a five-member panel, with three appointees by the governor and two by the lieutenant governor. It omits Senate provisions that gave appointees to the state superintendent of education and the state higher education commissioner. It also omits a provision requiring Senate confirmation of board members.
Oleta Fitzgerald of the Children’s Defense Fund said the board, as proposed by the bill, isn’t representative enough.
“We’re very concerned that the authorizing commission reflects the community, has parents on it,” she said.
The liberal leaning fund is highly skeptical of charter schools, fearing they will suck money out of current schools. But she and some other advocates for the current school system say they’d prefer the Senate bill to the House bill.
“All of these things are worse than what we got out of the Senate,” Fitzgerald said.
The bill is House Bill 888.