House Bill 1152, which was amended by the Senate to create an alternative system of public schools in Mississippi, had been stalled by opposition in the House. On Monday, House Education Chairman John Moore, R-Brandon, won House support to send the bill to a conference committee for further negotiations with the Senate.
To win majority support in the House, though, Senate negotiators would probably have to agree to change the bill in ways that Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves opposes.
Supporters say charter schools offer increased academic performance in exchange for freedom from state rules. Opponents say they are not persuaded that charter schools will be better, and contend such schools threaten to skim money and good students from traditional schools.
Right now, the bill says that districts whose academic performance is rated "star" or "high performing" by the state would get a veto over charter schools that wanted to locate in such areas. Districts that are rated "successful" would get a veto, but only until July 1, 2015. Students from any district could cross district lines to attend a charter school elsewhere.
Not giving a permanent veto to the roughly one-third of Mississippi districts rated successful is the major stumbling block in the House, said Rep. Gary Chism, R-Columbus, a House Education Committee member.
"If we remove successful, we can pass it," said Chism, who supports the current bill. "If we have successful in there, it's going to be awfully difficult to pass."
Rep. Pat Nelson, R-Southaven, who opposes the current bill, said further talks represent progress to him.
"The people who put the bill together, we told them in January what was wrong with it and it took until April for them to listen and believe what we're saying," Nelson said.
It's unlikely the Senate will budge. Reeves said he'd prefer that charter schools be free to locate in all districts. He said he's compromised from his original position, but said he's not willing to give a permanent veto to successful districts.
"We made a number of changes in our Senate language that we had hoped, and quite frankly expected, would convince a majority of the House," Reeves said.
Those who support allowing charter schools in successful districts note that some of those districts have individual schools that are rated below successful. Reeves described the successful label as "misleading" Monday.
He said he hadn't decided who would negotiate on behalf of the Senate, but said he doubted they would agree to narrow the measure.
Instead, Reeves said he's turning his sights to next year. He cited approval of sweeping laws passed recently in Louisiana, including a measure that would allow middle-income and poor students in average and below-average schools to receive vouchers to attend private schools.
"We're going to come back next year with a comprehensive education reform package to improve the educational level of Mississippi kids," Reeves said.
Sending the bill to conference buys more time. But it complicates its path to passage because House members could challenge it on parliamentary grounds when it returns from negotiations. House rules prohibit such challenges when the vote is to go along with changes made in the Senate, but allow parliamentary challenges to conference reports.
Chism acknowledged that problem, but said that Gov. Phil Bryant could come to the rescue if negotiators agree to a bill that can pass both the House and Senate. He said Bryant could call a special session within the remaining two weeks of the regular session to give the bill a fresh start where it wouldn't be facing the current parliamentary obstacles. Bryant said earlier he was considering such a session.
"They could still come up with some kind of agreement on both sides. If we have to, we could have a special session within a session," Chism said.