Mississippi House approves charter schools

By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal

JACKSON – The Mississippi House stayed into session until early Thursday to pass charter school legislation 64-55.

Debate started at about 2:30 p.m Wednesday and concluded just before 1 a.m. Thursday. Before the vote finally occurred, the Republican leadership had to defeated 17 amendments and read the entire 251-page bill. Late Wednesday Rep Bob Evans, D-Monticello, demanded the bill to be read. The state Constitution gives any member the right to make that request.

Debate started with the House leadership trying to appease opposition by passing an amendment to remove a loophole that would allow for-profit groups to operate charter schools.

“We are trying to make sure the members like it — that it is a product of the House,” said House Education Chair John Moore, R-Brandon.

At this point, charter school legislation, which has been identified as a priority of the Republican legislative leadership, has passed both chambers in differing forms. The Senate version, though, is much more expansive and work still must be done in the session to reconcile those differences.

Various groups, including the Parents Campaign, a pro education advocacy group, have expressed concerns with “the loophole.” Soon after the amendment passed with little debate, Nancy Loome, executive director of the Parents Campaign, voiced support for the House version of the charter school legislation.

Still, it did not curtail debate on charter schools, which receive public funding, but do not have to follow many of the guidelines and governance of traditional public schools. Some opponents again questioned the wisdom of taking funds away from traditional public schools and supporters said charter schools would help improve the overall educational outcomes in the state.

The House bill gives school boards in districts accredited at the A, B and C levels veto authority over charter schools in their districts.

Plus, the bill prevents students from crossing district lines to attend charter schools. Both provisions were supported by the Parents Campaign and the state Board of Education.

The bill would limit the creation of charter schools to 15 per year unlike the Senate legislation that has no limits.

The Senate proposal also would allow students to cross district lines and would give only A and B districts veto authority.

Both proposals create a separate agency to oversee the charter schools and to authorize them.

Rep. Cecil Brown, D-Jackson, unsuccessfully offered an amendment to remove the new board and put the responsibility of authorizing charter schools with the existing state Board of Education.

“I thought we were supposed to be reducing the size of government instead of increasing it,” Brown said.

Moore argued that the state Board had enough to do without tackling the issue of charter schools, plus they would be reluctant to approve charter schools.

Rep. Steve Holland, D-Plantersville, offered an amendment to require full funding of education — as required by law but ignored by the Legislature — to occur before charter schools could be enacted.

“Your are starting a whole new system of alleged public education with public dollars and you have absconded on the law,” he said.

Rep. Brad Mayo, R-Oxford, said, “Today before us is a tool that empowers devastated students across the state.”

Many black members spoke passionately against the bill, saying that efforts should be made to improve the schools for all students — not just those attending charter schools.