JACKSON — Senators voted 34-17 yesterday for a relatively broad plan to expand charter schools in Mississippi. During a five-hour debate, the Republican majority turned back a series of amendments, some of which would have narrowed the expansion.
As passed, the bill would allow students from anywhere in the state to attend a charter school. School boards in 32 highly rated districts would have a veto over charter schools. But schools could be set up in any other district once approved by a new seven-member commission.
The bill moves to the Republican-controlled House for more work. Republican Gov. Phil Bryant has said he supports charter schools.
Charter schools are supposed to agree to a contract in exchange for freedom from many of the rules that govern traditional schools in the public system. Mississippi already has a charter school law that would allow some existing public schools to be chartered, but no school has yet been declared eligible.
Senate Education Committee chairman Gray Tollison, R-Oxford, said charter schools offer an innovative solution to poor school performance.
“This is about students that are in a failing public school or a school that doesn’t serve their needs,” he told senators.
But critics worry that charters will hurt existing public schools and could be a back door to re-segregating public schools.
“Show me in this bill where there’s a silver bullet that decreases our dropout rates by creating charter schools,” said Sen. John Hohrn, D-Jackson.
Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, repeatedly asked during the debate why lawmakers didn’t amend the law to give traditional public schools the same freedom as charters. Tollison said existing schools are too hidebound to seek innovative approaches.
“If they want to have innovation in the public schools, they need to do it,” Tollison said.
Every Senate Republican voted for the final bill, including Sen. Sean Tindell, R-Gulfport, who had asked critical questions during the debate. Three Democrats — Steve Hale of Senatobia, Kenny Wayne Jones of Canton and Haskins Montgomery of Bay Springs — crossed party lines to vote for the final bill.
Hohrn failed to amend the bill to give school boards in the state’s 50 districts that are rated “successful” the same veto that boards in “star” or “high performing” districts would get.
He said the bill was too broad and needed to focus on underperforming schools. “We have limited resources,” Hohrn said.
Republicans said many successful districts have underperforming schools and shouldn’t be allowed to turn away charters.
“You’re lowering the bar on this thing and I’m for raising the bar on education,” said Senate President Pro Tempore Terry Brown, R-Columbus.
A majority also turned back an amendment from Sen. Michael Watson, R-Pascagoula, which would have let any of Mississippi’s 152 school districts, as well as any public university, authorize a charter school.
Instead, charter schools will be governed by a new seven-member commission that would approve applications and oversee operations of the schools. Two members apiece would be appointed by the governor, lieutenant governor and state superintendent of education, while one member would be appointed by the state higher education commissioner. Senators would have to confirm board members.
After approval, a charter school would get a five-year term. During that time, it would have to test its students in the same way that traditional schools do, although a charter school could propose additional performance measures as part of the contract it negotiates with the board.
All state and local tax money would follow a student to a charter school, even when they cross district lines. However, only the local portion of the state funding formula, not all local money, would follow students when they cross county lines.
Charter school teachers would not be paid according to the state salary schedule, and charter schools would be barred from participating in the state Public Employees Retirement System, although the schools could offer their own retirement plans.
Schools would have to be nonprofit, but could contract with for-profit firms for services. An amendment in committee stripped out provisions that allowed Internet-based charter schools.
Under the bill, Tollison said the earliest that a charter school could open would be 2014.
The bill is Senate Bill 2401.