Senate passes charter school bill with no limits

By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal

JACKSON – The Senate on Tuesday sent to the House legislation that would allow an unlimited number of charter schools to be created in the state.
In recent years, the Senate has passed charter school legislation that would allow a specific number of the schools to be created in each congressional districts. Those bills died in the House Education Committee.
Even though the bill passed Tuesday by the Senate has fewer limits on the charter schools, Senate Education Committee Chair Videt Carmichael, R-Meridian, expressed optimism that a charter school proposal might finally make it out of the House Education Committee and onto the House floor for a vote.
But the proposal is controversial in Mississippi. Some fear that it is a backdoor attempt to re-segregate many of Mississippi’s public schools, though supporters point out that a majority of charter school students in many parts of the country are minorities.
The Senate debated the issue for about two hours before it finally passed 29-19.
Charter schools are funded with taxes, but operate with more flexibility and fewer restrictions than the traditional public schools. Often times, charter schools have a special emphasis, such as on the art or the sciences.
“We have failing schools all over the place,” said Sen. Michael Watson, R-Pascagoula, one of the primary sponsors of the bill. “We need to make some changes and this is where it starts.”
Watson said that under the bill, the charter school would have to outperform the traditional public school or it would be shut down. Plus, the school would have to share “its best practices” with the traditional public schools in the area.
While the proposal had bipartisan support, all of the opposition to the proposal came from the Democrats in the chamber. Republicans pointed out that Democratic President Barack Obama is a backer of charter schools and helped create them in his home state of Illinois.
But Democrats countered that Mississippi, because of its history of racism, is different from other states.
“We’re heading back to segregation and lawsuits,” said Sen. David Jordan, D-Greenwood.
But Carmichael said the bill was crafted to ensure that all would have equal access to the schools.
Much of the opposition in the Senate was not centered on possible racism, but on the concern about taking money away from the traditional public schools during tough budget times.
Sen. Gray Tollison, D-Oxford, said he has supported the charter school concept in the past, but could not during the current budget crunch. He pointed out that Gov. Haley Barbour already has cut kindergarten through 12 grade education about $200 million because of a ongoing slowdown in state tax collections.
“Do you think we need to start a new program when we can’t afford the ones we have now?” asked Tollison.
Jordan added that the problems in education are caused by years of neglect and underfunding. He said that situation should be corrected instead of turning toward charter schools and taking resources away from the traditional schools.
After the vote on the Senate floor, Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant said, “If public charter schools give a child yet another opportunity to succeed, we all will be better in Mississippi.”
Bryant and others said that having a charter school law would make Mississippi eligible for more grants through the Race to the Top program, which is part of the stimulus package passed last year by Congress and signed into law by Obama.
But the state Department of Education has said the lack of a charter school law would not prevent Mississippi from being eligible for the grants through the program.
By the same token, state Superintendent of Education Tom Burnham has said he would support legislation allowing the state Board of Education to create charter schools in chronically low-performing districts.

Contact Bobby Harrison at (601) 353-3119 or bobby.harrison@djournal.com.

What are charter schools?
Charter schools are nonsectarian public schools of choice that operate with freedom from many of the regulations that apply to traditional public schools. The “charter” establishing each such school is a performance contract detailing the school’s mission, program, goals, students served, methods of assessment, and ways to measure success.
SOURCE: www.uscharterschools.org