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House and Senate pass differing charter school expansions

JACKSON — Charter schools could enroll students from outside their home school districts under measures that moved forward Tuesday in the Mississippi Legislature, but House members approved a much narrower expansion than the Senate.

The move could set up another House-Senate showdown like in 2013, when senators ultimately agreed to a narrower House bill overhauling the state’s charter school laws, rather than risk defeat of their more expansive bill. Tuesday’s action also seemed to signal that support for wide-open charter school expansion still appears weak in the House, despite an expanded Republican majority and some anti-charter GOP incumbents who lost primary elections to more supportive Republicans.

Supporters say they want students to be able to cross district lines in part to allow charter operators a better chance of success in rural areas, where many individual districts are too small to support a charter school. So far, the two operating schools and two more that are approved are all in the city of Jackson.

Rep. Charles Busby, R-Pascagoula, amended House Bill 1044 on the floor to allow students to cross district lines to attend a charter school only if they are leaving a district with a state academic rating of D or F. The bill originally said that students could leave any district. His bill, which passed 66-53, didn’t modify a provision that says districts rated A, B or C get a veto over allowing a charter school.

“I felt like it took away from our position that we are moving in a wise and prudent manner to go wide with this before we have results,” Busby said, saying he wanted the first two schools, which only opened in August, a chance to show results.

When asked whether a House majority would have supported a broader expansion, Busby said “You know politics always plays a role.”

Senators voted 31-19 to pass Senate Bill 2161, allowing any Mississippi student to cross district lines. It would also allow charter schools to open in C-rated districts without local approval. Debate was sharper in the Senate, with Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, renewing his opposition to the publicly funded schools that are operated by private nonprofit groups. Bryan said such schools shouldn’t be allowed to siphon off money from local schools, and said schools widely shared across all social groups are desirable.

“This is fundamentally undermining the public school system,” Bryan said, disputing the idea that C-rated schools are failing. “It affects a majority of districts in the state.”

Senate Education Committee Chairman Gray Tollison, R-Oxford, disagreed, saying parents should be able to choose better options, and that the focus should be students, not school districts.

“To keep them in a chronically failing school, to me, is outrageous,” Tollison said. “Let’s let the parent make the choice.”

The bills now move to the opposite chamber for more consideration. Tollison said he expected the Senate to try to bargain for the broader bill, saying that’s been the Senate’s position since 2013.

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