By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal
JACKSON – Numerous Northeast Mississippi legislators, both Republicans and Democrats, are not completely sold on charter schools as a tool to help improve the state’s educational outcomes.
In interviews during the opening week of the 2013 session with 20 Northeast Mississippi legislators, a majority said they would support charter schools in poor-performing districts, but not in other areas without the approval of local school boards.
“We have good schools for the most part in Northeast Mississippi,” said Rep. Donnie Bell, R-Fulton. “If you want to look at charter schools in failing school districts, that is fine.
“If several years from now, we see some trends where charter schools are really successful, then we might want to open it up. But right now, I don’t think we should bother the schools that are excelling.”
Charter schools operate outside much of the regulation governing traditional public schools, though they do receive public funding. Currently, state law allows parents to convert chronically poor-performing public schools to charter schools under certain circumstances.
Thus far, there has been no effort to use that state law.
Gov. Phil Bryant, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and Speaker Philip Gunn have proposed expanding the charter school law to allow new or startup charter schools. Reeves, in particular, has been a strong advocate of allowing charter schools in districts accredited at the C, D and F levels with school boards of A- and B-accredited school districts having the authority to veto charter schools within their district boundaries. And in recent weeks, Reeves had said he believes parents and not governmental officials should decide where charter schools should be located.
Last year charter school legislation passed the Senate where Reeves presides, but died in the House.
Skepticism still remains in the House even though most legislators said they would like to see legislation before making a final determination.
Many Northeast Mississippi legislators fit into the category of saying they would favor allowing charter schools in D and F districts.
“I don’t want them in successful or above districts,” said Rep. Lester “Bubba” Carpenter, R-Burnsville. “…D and F districts – we need them as a tool in the toolbox. We have to try something different in those districts.”
Rep. William Tracy Arnold, R-Booneville, said, “I would say they are needed in some areas. I would say more in failing districts.”
Others such as Reps. Nick Bain, D-Corinth; Jody Steverson, D-Ripley; Jerry Turner, R-Baldwyn, Mac Huddleston, R-Pontotoc; Jim Beckett, R-Bruce and Preston Sullivan, D-Okolona, indicated they would prefer charter schools only in low-performing districts.
“As long as C is mentioned in the bill, I can’t see voting for it,” Steverson said, adding charter schools would take funds from already financially strapped public schools.
“There are places in the state where we do need charter schools,” Turner said. “Low-performing schools – that is where the need is. The fact is if it wasn’t for those districts we would not be discussing this at all.”
While the legislation did pass the Senate last year, there are also skeptics in the upper chamber. Sen. Nickey Browning, D-Pontotoc, said if the legislation is the same as last year – allowing the schools in C districts – “I can’t support it. I have talked to educators in my district and to the general public and they are scared of charter schools.”
And Sen. J.P. Wilemon, D-Belmont, said he cannot support the concept because he does not understand why charter schools should have more freedom than traditional public schools.
Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, has been an outspoken opponent of charter schools, saying if there are regulations that are hindering traditional public schools, they should be removed instead of authorizing charter schools.
In the House, Steve Holland, D-Plantersville, said, “I am open-minded to try different things, but my whole point is we have not supported public schools. Let’s give them the resources they need.”
Two Republicans – Margaret Rogers of New Albany, and Steve Massengill of Hickory Flat – also expressed strong reservations.
“I want to read the bill, but I am not inclined to vote for charter schools,” Rogers said. “We have limited money. I think they will raise our taxes.”
Massengill said, “I would do a pilot program. Other than that, I am probably a no.”
Rep. Kelvin Buck, D-Holly Springs, “I am absolutely no on charter schools. I think the legislation would set up a system that is separate … We have limited dollars for our current system. Plus, I don’t think charter schools offer any real solutions to our education challenges.”
Charter schools, though, do have some of their most vocal supporters in Northeast Mississippi.
Sen. Nancy Collins, R-Tupelo, has been one of the leaders in the Legislature in the charter school movement. She said parents and students from all areas and from all demographic groups should have school choice.
Rep. Randy Boyd, R-Mantachie, said there are students falling behind in even the most successful districts.
“We have to do something,” he said.
Rep. Brian Aldridge, R-Tupelo, said the feedback he is getting from his constituents indicates support for charter schools. He said they indicate they want more school choice.
Speaker Gunn has said the legislation the leadership will introduce will limit the number of charter schools to 15 per year.
“We want to stress quality, not quantity,” he said.
House Education Chair John Moore, R-Brandon, said his legislation will allow boards of successful, or C, districts to veto charter schools until 2016. But he said if the will of the House is strong on the issue, he would agree to allow them only in D or F districts without the approval of the local boards.
Moore said he doubts his Education Committee will take up the issue this week.