By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal
JACKSON – The Legislature continues to work toward hammering out an aggressive package of education proposals, ranging from a stronger charter school law to enhancing safety standards in the classrooms to requiring students by third grade to read on grade level.
The Legislature also is looking to fund a pre-kindergarten program for the first time in the state’s history and at increasing academic standards for teachers.
Today is the deadline for original action by one chamber on legislation that has passed the other chamber.
At this point in the process, most of the key education proposals made by Republican Gov. Phil Bryant and other members of the Republican leadership of the House and the Senate are alive with the exception of appointed superintendents. That proposal will have to be revived by Thursday to remain alive in the process after it was defeated Monday afternoon by the House.
On Tuesday afternoon, the Senate passed legislation the leadership had amended to include several of the education proposals into one package, including charter schools, the third grade reading component and the enhanced standards for teachers.
“I think this is an effort on part of this body….to improve education,” said Senate Education Chair Gray Tollison, R-Oxford. “Some good things are happening across the state, but not enough. We have to close the achievement gap.”
No doubt, the most controversial part of the package was the charter school component, which would allow public funds to be spent to create public schools that would not have to adhere to many of the rules and governance of traditional public schools.
Students could cross district lines to attend the charter schools that would sign a contract with the state agreeing to meet certain guidelines.
The vote Tuesday on the legislation, which has the strong backing of Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, was closer than when the Senate took up charter schools earlier in the session.
Earlier in the session, charter school legislation passed the Senate 31-17, but on Tuesday the omnibus bill, which included charter schools and the other proposals, passed by a much slimmer 28-23 margin. Three members of Reeves Republican majority voted no on the proposal even though it was less far-reaching than the charter proposal passed by the Senate earlier in the session.
At this point, the Senate leadership is trying reach compromise with the House, where support for charter schools is more tepid.
In an effort to reach a compromise with the House, the proposal passed by the Senate Tuesday would give school boards in C performing school districts the authority to veto the location of a charter school within their boundaries until July 1, 2016. The original Senate bill just gave A and B districts veto authority. Plus, the new Senate proposal would limit the number of new charter schools to 15 per year while the original Senate bill contained no limits.
Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, argued that charter schools would weaken traditional public schools, which already are struggling because of being underfunded under the Mississippi Adequate Education Program formula by $1 billion since the national recession hit in 2008. He said if charter schools are a good idea, he said, why not select a charter organization to run an entire district instead of siphoning off the top-performing students from traditional public schools.
“Have a charter school take over a district under conservatorship,” Bryan said. “They will not do it.”
The House could take up a charter school proposal today. Or at this point, the House leadership could opt to wait for the latest Senate proposal, which passed Tuesday, and invite negotiations or approve the proposal and send it to the governor.
ARMS FOR SCHOOLS
The House passed legislation Tuesday to keep alive Rep. Lester “Bubba” Carpenter proposal to allow school districts to arm employees. The Senate position is to provide matching funds to help local districts hire certified law enforcement personnel to provide security. Carpenter, R-Burnsville, argued some districts could not afford the expense.
At this point, it appears that issue, like many other education proposals before the Legislature this session, will end up in conference where leaders from the two chambers will try to hammer out a compromise.
Two other blls that appear heading to conference are proposals to merge the Clay County and West Point school districts and the Oktibbeha County District with Starkville. In both proposals now, local commissions would be formed to work on the consolidation.
HOW THEY VOTED
Votes Tuesday of Northeast Mississippi senators on the omnibus education bill that includes charter schools:
FOR – Nancy Collins, R-Tupelo; Gary Jackson, R-French Camp; Gray Tollison, R-Oxford.
AGAINST – Nickey Browning, D-Pontotoc; Hob Bryan, D-Amory; Russell Jolly, D-Houston; Rita Potts Parks, R-Corinth; Bill Stone, D-Ashland; Angela Turner, D-West Point, J.P. Wilemon, D-Belmont.