JACKSON — The Republican speaker of the Mississippi House has shuffled committee assignments in a way that makes it easier to pass charter school legislation he supports.
Speaker Philip Gunn recently moved Democrat Linda Whittington of Schlater off the Education Committee and made her vice chairwoman of the Tourism Committee. He gave Whittington’s seat on the Education Committee to Republican Charles Busby of Pascagoula, who supports charter schools.
The moves come after the resignation of Republican Rep. Tommy Woods of Byhalia, who stepped down because of health reasons. A Nov. 27 runoff is set in the special election to replace Woods.
Gunn said Whittington’s new assignment should help the Delta and create more diversity by putting a Democratic woman into a vice chairmanship.
Whittington told The Associated Press that she received a letter from Gunn, dated Oct. 22, telling her about her new assignments. She said she hopes the Delta will see some benefit through her new assignment on Tourism, but she wanted to stay on the Education Committee.
“I was worried about abdicating what I consider my responsibility to represent the public education viewpoint of my constituents,” Whittington said.
Whittington helped organize votes to defeat a charter schools bill in the Education Committee this year. The bill died by a one-vote margin on the committee.
Charters allow parents or other groups to reorganize public schools to set a particular academic emphasis or approach to discipline. Supporters say charters could allow innovation that would improve low-performing schools. Critics say charters are too narrowly focused and officials should concentrate on improving the entire education system.
Brandon Jones, who served one term in the House as a Democrat and was defeated by Busby in November 2011, is now chairman of the Mississippi Democratic Trust, a group that promotes ideas for the party’s lawmakers. He issued a statement yesterday criticizing Gunn’s changing Whittington’s committee assignments.
“Her removal from the Education Committee over a single policy issue is without precedent and makes clear that the speaker would rather stack the deck than risk losing a straight-up committee vote,” Jones said. “Issues involving public education in Mississippi deserve a full vetting by our legislators. With this decision, the speaker has ensured that that won’t happen here.”
Gunn said critics are entitled to their opinions.
“But, what has transpired is within the rules,” Gunn said. “It is not immoral. It is not illegal. It is certainly within the rules of the House of Representatives. I can’t help what they think.”
Woods was chairman of the Interstate Cooperation Committee. Gunn said he moved Republican Brian Aldridge of Tupelo to that chairmanship because Aldridge requested it. Aldridge had been vice chairman of the Tourism Committee, and Gunn moved Whittington into that spot.
Gunn said that while he was shuffling committee assignments, he left vacancies for Woods’ successor.
In a separate but related item, State of Washington voters have narrowly approved an initiative that clears the way for up to 40 charter schools to be opened in the state over the next five years.
Initiative 1240 has clung to a narrow lead as more ballots were counted following last week’s election.
This is the fourth time the proposal has been on the ballot in Washington state, where voters rejected charter schools in 1996, 2000 and 2004.
Supporters say the charter proposal would offer new choices for struggling kids and their families. Opponents say charters have a mixed track record in other states and they would take away money from regular public schools.
Proponents of charter schools raised more than $10 million to promote the idea, including $3 million from Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates.
Washington becomes the 42nd state to allow the public independent schools.
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