After nearly five hours of debate the Republicans in the state Senate passed the Mississippi Public Charter Schools Act of 2012 by a vote of 34-17, largely split down party lines. The House is expected to introduce its own charter schools bill this week.
Senate Bill 2401, sponsored by Sen. Gray Tollison, would allow charter schools in all school districts in Mississippi and establishes an Authorizer Board that would approve proposed schools and act independently of the state Department of Education.
Charter schools are open-enrollment public schools that are freed from some of the rules, regulations and statutes that apply to other public schools in exchange for accountability for producing certain results.
Tollison stressed that Mississippi is “in a crisis of high school drop outs” and that increasing graduation rates was imperative to state economic success. The state’s graduation rate is 61 percent, and 16,000 high school students dropped out last year. Charter school legislation from 40 other states was considered and best practices were put into the bill, he said, which is an “opportunity for innovation.”
Tollison held up the KIPP Delta schools in Arkansas as an example of successful charter schools that work with at-risk students. The KIPP, or Knowledge is Power, schools have a graduation rate of 96 percent and college admission rate for graduates of 100 percent.
Charter school authorization
Under the bill the Authorizer Board would operate independently of the state Department of Education. Those interested in creating charter schools would submit proposals to this board, which would have the authority to approve them and the responsibility to hold them accountable for performance.
The board would comprise: two members appointed by Governor, two members appointed by the Lt. Governor, two members appointed by state Superintendent of Education, and one member appointed by the state Commissioner of Higher Education.
Enrollment and student demographics
Charter schools would have open enrollment. In the event a charter school should have more students apply than it could accommodate, enrollment would be handled via lottery system.
The bill states preference will be given to the formation of charter schools that would serve at-risk students. Charters would also be required to enroll a number at-risk students reflecting the population of the school district in which it would be located. (At-risk students are defined as those participating in the federal free lunch program who qualify for at-risk student funding under the Mississippi Adequate Education Program.)
Charter schools would be funded on a per-pupil basis like other state public schools. “The money follows the student,” Tollison explained.
Sen. John Horne expressed concerns about stretching resources, if, for example, a school district with nine schools was then required to fund an additional charter school for a total of 10 schools on the same budget.
Tollison said charter schools are often more efficient in the way they use administrative funds. Charters would not be eligible for bond money or millage funds.
Members of the Senate also discussed the bill’s language regarding teachers. Charter school teachers do not have the option of joining the state Public Employee Retirement System (PERS) under the bill. Also, teachers would not be required to be state certified but could teach with a bachelor’s degree.
Nine amendments failed, one of which was a measure that would have removed the Authorizer Board and placed authorization authority with the state Board of Education. Another failed amendment would have limited charter schools to underperforming school districts failed. (See corresponding post: “Rating ‘successful’ public schools.“)