House committee narrowly approves charter school bill

JACKSON — In a close vote, the House Education Committee approved a plan yesterday to expand charter schools in Mississippi.

Committee members voted 14-12 for the bill. A number of Republicans voted “no,” even though the measure is a top priority of their party’s leadership. That could signal trouble in a House where the GOP holds only a 64-58 majority.

The narrow escape followed amendments that watered down what had been a more expansive bill, and pleas from Education Committee Chairman John Moore, R-Brandon, to move the bill forward so he could make some more changes.

“Every one of this in this room, we can find one line in this bill to give us a reason to vote against it,” said Moore, who promised changes when he confers with senators, who have passed a separate charter school measure with different provisions.

Among the changes in the House measure that was unveiled Wednesday is a ban on charter schools locating in the 20 percent of the state’s districts rated “star” or “high performing.”

That change won’t prevent students from crossing district lines to attend charter schools elsewhere, or enrolling in online charter schools. The House version also still allows local school boards in lower-rated districts to approve and monitor charters, while the Senate version gives that authority only to a new statewide board.

Virtual charters continue to be controversial. In another effort to ease the concerns of members, Moore capped funding to the online schools to 2 percent of any district’s total budget. The bill passed by the Senate bans virtual charters.

“I don’t like the virtuals and I hope you will take them out on the floor,” said Rep. Toby Barker, R-Hattiesburg, who voted for the bill anyway, saying he wanted to “continue the discussion.”

Moore also added language promoted by public schools lobbying group The Parents Campaign to require charter school applicants to demonstrate a track record of success.

In exchange for freedom from traditional rules governing other public schools, charter schools are supposed to guarantee superior academic results. Mississippi currently has a restrictive law to allow individual public schools with a history of bad performance to be turned into charters, but does not allow new ones to be created from scratch. No schools have been converted under the current law.

Committee members questioned whether “successful” rated districts should also be exempted, whether some share of charter school teachers and administrators should be required to have state licenses, and whether existing schools’ finances and student performance would be harmed if charter schools enroll some of their students.

Moore and Rep. Chuck Espy, D-Clarksdale, defended the bill, saying current schools don’t measure up.

Espy and two other black Democratic lawmakers who support charters were featured earlier yesterday at a Capitol rally of the Black Alliance for Educational Options, a group that promotes charter schools, vouchers and other alternatives.

“I have been a lawmaker for 12 years and I have failed you in public education,” Espy told the group. “The buck stops here. We will pass charter schools. We will have reform and we will teach a new way of doing business for public schools in the state of Mississippi.”

Regina Wright of Greenville said she pulled her daughter Ayana out of that city’s public schools in first grade when the daughter told her mother she wasn’t learning anything. She’s now paying to send her daughter to private school.

“As an American, it’s a right to have a good public school,” Wright said.

Others though, worry that charter schools will skim off motivated parents and money, leaving behind traditional public schools in worse shape.

“What you’re going to leave behind is a setup for the failure of schools and school districts, bar none,” Canton superintendent Dwight Luckett said after the committee meeting.

The bills are House Bill 888 and Senate Bill 2401.

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