BOBBY HARRISON: New GOP leadership experiences legislative surprises

By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal

The new Republican leadership in the Mississippi Legislature is learning what the old regime already knew – expect the unexpected. When the session began, it looked like a sure bet – a lead-pipe cinch – that the Legislature would pass bills to remove civil service protection for state employees and to open up the state to charter schools.
Both proposals had been popular with Republicans. And with Republicans in charge for the first time since the 1800s, it appeared a slam dunk that both would pass during the 2012 session. Now, both are in jeopardy. The best scenario from the leadership’s perspective is that the legislation will pass, albeit in much watered-down versions. And the worst-case scenario in the view of the Republican leaders is that the 2012 session will end with nothing on charter schools or removing civil service protection passing. Nothing passing is a distinct possibility. The new leadership is learning what the old leaders already knew – leading legislators is kind of like herding cats – wild cats, not house cats.
The reasons legislators vote the way they do vary.
Take the charter school legislation, for instance. It is facing obstacles for differing reasons. There are members who oppose any version of charter school legislation.
But some members say they support the legislation as long as the charter schools are limited to poor performing districts or at least the local school boards in successful systems are given the option to veto any charter school proposal in their district. But they are voting against a proposal that would do just that because they fear what will come out of conference later in the process when key House and Senate leaders get together to try to hash out differences. Truth be known, there are members of the Legislature who fear charter schools because of the people most closely associated with the issue here in Mississippi. Charter schools vary widely in how they operate. But in general, they are public schools that operate outside many of the guidelines and governance of traditional public schools. It is at least a bit ironic that many of the primary charter school proponents also support legislation that would dictate to local school districts when to start and end the school year. But there is a bigger point.
And that point is that some of the most vocal and ardent charter school supporters do not want to stop there. For instance, House Education Chair John Moore, R-Brandon, is on record as saying if he had his druthers he would pass a broad charter school bill that would place no limitations on where they could be located. Moore also introduced legislation to provide tax breaks for private school tuition. In the Senate, Michael Watson, R-Pascagoula, and Nancy Collins, R-Tupelo, are not only vocal charter school supporters, but also introduced legislation to allow school vouchers.
Now that does not mean Moore, Collins or Watson are bad people or that their proposals are bad. But there is a group of legislators and others who would support allowing charter schools in limited areas – where the traditional public schools have a history of failure. But they refuse to vote to allow that because of the fear that if the door is opened other legislation will follow. For that reason, they are reluctant to even crack open the door.
Bobby Harrison is the Daily Journal’s Capitol Bureau reporter. Contact him at (601) 353-3119 or bobby.harrison@journalinc.com.