BOBBY HARRISON: Extra board for charters could have pitfalls

By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal

JACKSON – Believe it or not, even after Mississippians sent a clear message in the November 2011 elections that they want smaller government by giving Republicans seven of eight statewide posts and both chambers of the Legislature, there are efforts to create another governmental agency.
That’s right – more governmental bureaucracy is being considered.
And believe it or not, that effort is being led by politicians who proudly proclaim their fiscal conservatism and in most instances back up what they say when it comes to holding down spending. Yet they are advocating for yet another state agency.
Charter school legislation that was advocated in the 2012 session by Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, Speaker Philip Gunn and even Gov. Phil Bryant, all conservative Republicans, would have created a new board to authorize charter schools.
The version of the charter school legislation being advocated by Reeves, still novice Republican Gray Tollison, Senate Education chair, and by Tupelo’s Nancy Collins, Senate Education vice chair, will propose a new governmental agency during the 2013 session.
House Education Chair John Moore, R-Brandon, said his version of charter school legislation also will have an authorizing board. At one point earlier this year Gunn indicated that he would consider options other than creating an authorizing board.
The alternative, of course, is for the state Board of Education to be the authorizer. After all, charter school advocates repeatedly say charter schools are just another version of public schools. The Mississippi Constitution calls for the state Board of Education “to manage and invest school funding.” It could be argued that it would be unconstitutional for another entity to do that, which is what an authorizing board would be doing.
Now, granted there are some problems with Mississippi public schools, but they are in a lot better shape than they were before the state Board of Education was created in the 1980s. And, no doubt, they would be in much better shape if the Legislature and governor had not underfunded them nearly $1 billion since the 2008 legislative session.
The fear of some charter school advocates is that the state Board of Education is vested in traditional public schools and will oppose all or most charter schools, which do not have to adhere to many of the rules, guidelines and governance of traditional public schools.
Even if that is so, the aforementioned Bryant, Reeves and Gunn have the ability to correct that without creating a new governmental agency.
The aforementioned state Constitution gives those three self-proclaimed fiscal conservatives the sole authority to nominate state Board of Education members who must be confirmed by the Senate.
The governor has five appointments and the speaker and lieutenant governor have two each.
The majority of the existing state board was appointed by Republicans, who generally in Mississippi are more accepting of charter schools.
The two appointees by former House Speaker Billy McCoy, D-Rienzi, will be coming off the board in the next few years.
There would be nothing to prevent Gunn, Bryant and Reeves from asking their potential appointees how they feel about charter schools. If they said the oppose them, they could eliminate them from consideration.
Simple enough.
While some say a separate authorizing board is needed to focus solely on charter schools, others argue that the existing state Board of Education should handle that task because it can consider charter schools in the totality of public education. That does not have to mean that the board would reject all charter schools, but the board could look at how each decision could affect neighboring school districts or other aspects of the existing system.
A separate charter school authorizing board would not have that insight because it would focus only on charter schools – not the entire public education system that Bryant, Gunn and Reeves all stress is still important.
One plan calls for the authorizing board to be funded by a small percentage of public funds that would go to the charter schools based on their enrollment. But realistically that could give the new board an incentive to authorize more charter schools.
The more charter schools the new board authorizes, the more funds it would receive.
Is that sound fiscal policy or sound education policy?
Bobby Harrison is Capitol Bureau chief in Jackson for the Daily Journal. Contact him at (601) 353-3119 or bobby.harrison@journalinc.com.