JACKSON — Bleary-eyed charter schools supporters took a few minutes to bask in a big victory early today, but were quick to acknowledge that the fight’s not over.
The Mississippi House voted 64-55 to pass House Bill 369, which would expand charter schools in the state. The vote came after more than seven hours of debate and three hours of a computer reading the 251-page bill.
Last year, proposals for charter schools — public schools that agree to meet certain standards in exchange for freedom from regulations — never reached the House floor. This year, House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, muscled a carefully tailored bill through his chamber. The bill’s managers conceded enough changes that even a group that had fought the proposal swung over to endorse it during debate yesterday.
“I’m proud we could deliver this for Mississippi children, but we’ve still got a long way to go,” Rep. Charles Busby, R-Pascagoula, said after the debate. The freshman was tapped to handle the bill on the floor, enduring hours of sometimes repetitive questions from mainly Democratic opponents.
Now come negotiations with the Senate, which passed a broader bill last week. The House and the Senate must agree on a version before it can go to Republican Gov. Phil Bryant, who during his State of the State address Tuesday reiterated a desire to sign an expanded charter law.
The House version differs from the Senate bill, limiting charters to 15 a year, giving school boards in districts rated “A,” ”B” or “C” a veto, and prohibiting students from crossing district lines. The Senate bill doesn’t impose a limit, doesn’t give a veto to C-rated districts, and allows students to cross lines statewide. Gunn offered concessions to opponents because charter opposition is stronger in the House.
Rep. Pat Nelson, R-Southaven, said the endorsement of the bill by The Parents Campaign, which had been lobbying against it, as one factor that pushed it toward passage. As debate began yesterday afternoon, authors amended the measure to bar charter school boards from hiring for-profit management organizations to run schools.
The lobbying group, which had voiced fears of for-profit groups, announced its support after the nonprofit amendment was adopted.
“We are close to getting a bill that can provide good charter schools for our children who need them — those trapped in chronically underperforming schools,” executive director Nancy Loome wrote in an email to supporters urging them to call lawmakers and tell them to vote ‘yes.’
Still, Nelson and five other Republicans ended up voting against the final bill. But some of those opponents voted to protect the bill against hostile amendments. Republicans managing the bill confirmed an agreement with GOP opponents to vote against amendments proposed by Democrats before voting against the final bill.
Members voted down 17 amendments after approving the first one. Statewatch, a bill-tracking service, said that was the largest number of amendments offered to any proposed legislation in at least six years. Among rejected proposals were ones mandating that charter school teachers join the Public Employees Retirement System, allowing for public referendums before charter schools could be set up, or requiring lawmakers to fully fund the Mississippi Adequate Education Program before setting up charter schools.
The debate was the longest since Republicans took over the House in 2012. Rep. Bob Evans, D-Monticello, forced the 251-page bill to be read, delaying the vote until 12:52 am.
That marathon was still ahead of House members when Busby started the debate by asking: “What will we do today that is different than yesterday that will put our children in a better place tomorrow?”
Busby joined the Education Committee when House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, kicked charter school opponent Linda Whittington, D-Schlater, off the panel. He quoted former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as saying there is no time for evolution in education.
“I want you to help me start the education revolution in Mississippi today,” he said.
But a number of black Democrats said they mistrusted Republicans’ claims of wanting to improve education for black children, a current that flows strongly through their opposition to charter schools.
Several became indignant after Rep. Brad Mayo, a white Oxford Republican, compared his father’s segregated schooling in the Sunflower County town of Drew to the struggling state of schools there today. State education officials forced a merger of the Drew district and the Sunflower County district in July, closing Drew High School, which graduated Archie Manning.
“I don’t believe for one second that you care about improving the plight of our children,” said Rep. Adrienne Wooten, D-Jackson.