Visits precede charter school push

By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal Jackson Bureau

JACKSON – Mississippi legislators have toured charter schools in Florida, New Orleans and Arkansas as they prepare to tackle the controversial issue again during the upcoming 2013 session.
House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, who toured charter schools in Florida recently, said he hopes a charter school proposal can be drafted in the coming weeks that can pass the House in 2013.
In the 2012 session, the House Education Committee rejected charter school legislation that had passed the Senate.
The tours of charter schools in other states are designed in part to build support for allowing the schools, which receive public funds but do not have to adhere to many regulations governing traditional public schools, to locate in Mississippi.
On Tuesday, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, Senate Education Chair Gray Tollison, R-Oxford, and Senate Education Vice Chair Nancy Collins, R-Tupelo, all strong charter school proponents, will tour the KIPP charter school in Helena, Ark., and meet with parents.
“The KIPP school in Helena has been successful in preparing students from the Arkansas Delta for college and careers,” said Laura Hipp, a spokeswoman for Reeves. “Lieutenant Governor Reeves wants to talk with parents, who had a choice in their children’s education, and see classes at the charter school. Their model of success could and should be replicated in Mississippi.”
Charter school supporters say they provide parents and students a choice, especially in areas where the traditional public schools are struggling. Opponents say they siphon funds and the best students from traditional public schools.
Gunn said he hopes to put many of the concerns about charter schools to rest in drafting the legislation the House will consider in 2013, though he stressed he does not anticipate being the primary author of a House bill.
The first issue, Gunn said, is concerns that the schools will be “religious in nature … The bill we are working on says non-sectarian – will not have a religious purpose.”
While choosing his words in a manner to leave room to negotiate, the Republican speaker also indicated that charter schools might be best suited in Mississippi for areas with chronically low-performing schools.
“We want them to succeed,” Gunn said. He said the “objective is to provide a quality educational opportunity to every kid in the state and many kids in the state live in areas that already have good educational opportunities…, but some live in areas where they have not be provided (quality educational opportunities.) That seems to be the obvious place to start.”
Gunn cited schools performing at D and F levels – based on state standards – as obvious areas to allow charter schools. During the last session, Reeves and the Senate leadership were insistent that C-performing or successful districts also be allowed as location of charter schools without the approval of local school boards.
Another issue, Gunn conceded, is what governing agency would oversee the charter schools.
In Florida, Gunn said the state board oversees the schools and has authorizing power, but there is an appeals board if someone believes a charter school has been unfairly or illegally denied from locating in the state.
Gunn said under any law the decision on whether to authorize a charter school “should not be a subjective decision.”
After the 2012 session concluded with charter school legislation dying in the House, Reeves, who presides over the Senate, said he would work to develop support for “real education reform” in 2013.
Charter schools will be one of many education issues debated during the 2013 session, in which Gov. Phil Bryant has said he wants to focus on education. Charter schools is also part of Bryant’s education agenda.
Mississippi currently has a law that allows parents of a chronically low-performing school to convert it to a charter school. Thus far no group has tried to use the law.
bobby.harrison@journalinc.com