New charter school legislation intoduced in Senate

JACKSON — A new bill in the Mississippi Senate would let students cross district lines to attend charter schools.

The bill, which was discussed yesterday in the Senate Education Committee, would send local tax money along with the student to any charter school, even if the charter school is in another public school district.

Senate Education Committee Chairman Gray Tollison, R-Oxford, said his Senate Bill 2401 would set the stage for innovative approaches to improve Mississippi’s schools.

“This is not the silver bullet,” he told the committee. “This is a tool, an option we do not have.”

A new seven-member commission would approve applications and oversee operations of the schools, meant to achieve better academic performance in exchange for freedom from regulation. 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.

Many advocates had proposed allowing the Mississippi Department of Education to license and regulate charter schools, but national advocates encouraged Tollison to set up the independent commission. He said that traditional education leaders aren’t well equipped to allow the flexibility that a good charter school needs.

“It is a public school, but it needs to have a real and perceived separation from the traditional public school system,” Tollison said.

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

“Generally speaking, they’ll have to meet all the standard accountability measures that the public schools do,” Tollison said.

Charter schools would be governed by their own boards, and could open in any district that’s below the two highest notches on the state’s rating system — “star” and “high performing.” In those 32 districts, a local board would have to approve any application. But even students in highly-rated districts could attend charter schools elsewhere.

Critics question whether the state should allow charter schools as widely as Tollison proposes. Nancy Loome, head of the Parents’ Campaign, says that with scarce money, Mississippi needs to limit charter schools to areas where schools are chronically failing.

“These charter schools are desperately needed in districts where kids do not have good options,” Loome said. “We need to focus these resources in areas were kids are not getting a good public education.”

Sen. David Blount, D-Jackson, said he was considering offering an amendment that would allow the state’s 50 “successful” districts to also opt out of charter schools, and to keep charter schools from enrolling students in districts that opted out. The committee plans to consider amendments Tuesday.

State and local tax money would follow a student to a charter school, even when they cross district lines. A tax collector would be required to send a per-capita share of all revenue collected from a student’s traditional district, even amounts that local districts raise above the requirements for the local funding formula.

Forest Thigpen, head of the Mississippi Center for Public Policy, said he was pleased that local funding would follow the student. He favors an even more permissive location policy. “We think that charter schools should be able to locate anywhere,” Thigpen said.

Sen. David Jordan, D-Greenwood, said he was concerned that the state wants charter boards to take over all its public schools. Tollison, though, said he anticipates a relatively small number, and that the board would factor in whether a local community supports an application.

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.

The schools would have to meet special education needs as well as take students who don’t speak English well. But schools could design themselves to offer specialized courses of study, and could even limit themselves to just boys or just girls.

Schools would have to be non-profit, but could contract with for-profit firms for services. Internet-based schools would be allowed, although Loome and some other advocates express concern that such virtual schools have poor track records in some states.

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