The legislation culminates an effort over several years by Republicans to enact new charter school laws in Mississippi.
“I am very proud we have a bill,” said Sen. Education Chair Videt Carmichael, R-Meridian, who negotiated for several days with his House counterparts on the proposal that finally passed Saturday. “Would I like for it to do more? No doubt.”
The charter school legislation was one of the final issues taken up Saturday before legislators recessed until April 20. When they return they will focus on passing a budget.
Negotiators have agreed to spend about $5.5 billion, but they haven’t divided the money among state programs. They’re hoping to get an additional $187 million in federal money that could also be included in the budget.
A few other issues might be taken up when they return. For instance, before leaving, the House passed legislation to re-authorize the Department of Employment Security and to make changes in the way unemployment benefits are administered to draw down additional federal funds.
The Senate will take up the issue when it returns on April 20. A fight is expected on whether to change the law to draw down additional federal stimulus funds. The change would require unemployment benefits calculations to include the last quarter of work.
If the legislation is not passed by the Senate and finalized by Barbour to re-authorize Employment Security, the agency will die on July 1.
The charter school issue has long been a fight in the Legislature. The Senate had passed charter school legislation in recent years, but it had died in the House Education Committee where Chair Cecil Brown, D-Jackson, could not garner the votes to advance the proposal.
This year Brown got out of his committee what he considered a compromise proposal. Much of that compromise was incorporated in the agreement voted on Saturday.
Charter schools can take many different shapes, but in general they are schools that receive public funds, but operate outside some of the rules and regulations of traditional public schools.
Under the proposal approved Saturday, a group of parents could petition the state Board of Education to covert their school to what is known as a conversion charter school. But before the parents can make such a request, the school must be identified as a poor-performing school, based on state accreditation standards. Plus, there can only be 12 charter schools in the state – three per congressional district.
The students in the conversion charter school must come from the regular attendance zone of the school. An election would be held to select five parents to serve on the school’s governing board. That board would be responsible for hiring and firing personnel.
In additional to the conversion charter school provision, the bill approved Saturday also includes language to create what will be known as new start schools. This would give the state the authority to take over and govern chronically low-performing schools.
“This gives us the tools to hold everybody accountable,” Brown said.
State Superintendent Tom Burnham said the proposal passed Saturday “fits together” with previous legislation to provide options to deal with low-performing schools and districts. Two years ago the Legislature passed the Children First Act that gives the state more authority to intervene and eventually take over chronically low-performing school districts.
Brown said the language passed Saturday is needed because 211 of the about 1,000 schools in the state are failing or are at risk of failing.
Rep. Kelvin Buck, D-Holly Springs, said he opposed the legislation because the Children First Act had not had time to work.
“The new legislation seems to be piling on,” Buck said. He said the state is doing several things to add new regulations on teachers and administrators, yet is talking about removing those regulations for charter schools. If there are excessive regulations, they should be removed for all schools, and then focus should be given on all schools succeeding.
Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant, a charter school proponent, said he had hoped the legislation would allow more charter schools and would not limit the charter schools to just converting poor-performing schools.
By the same token, he said he supports the legislation and hoped that once people saw the success of charter schools the legislation would be expanded.
The proposal passed the House 88-28 and passed the Senate 27-11.
Don Turner, a spokesman for Gov. Haley Barbour, said the governor supports the concept of charter schools, but would have to see the legislation before deciding whether to sign it.