Emotions flare after House committee rejects charter school bill

JACKSON — Emotions flared yesterday as a House committee rejected efforts to widen Mississippi’s provisions for charter schools, but the issue was far from dead. Gov. Phil Bryant immediately threatened a special session, and senators tried to figure out if they could tack most or all of the charter language onto another bill.

House Education Committee members voted 16-15 yesterday to reject Senate Bill 2401, which had earlier passed the Senate, ending a six-day delay as proponents futilely tried to round up votes. Though two Democrats voted for the measure, five crucial Republicans broke ranks to reject the plan.

Supporters say charter schools promise better academics in return for freedom from state rules. Opponents worry they could skim funding and motivated students from poorly performing districts, leaving them worse off.

Bryant said he was considering stopping the regular session for a special session. Spokesman Mick Bullock said there was “no definite timeline” on when the Republican governor might act.

“Creating public charter schools is one way to give our children another opportunity to succeed,” Bryant said in a statement. “I am considering calling a special session within the session to give lawmakers additional time to develop a workable public charter school bill. We must stop accepting failing schools that do not give kids the opportunities they deserve.”

Senate Education Chairman Gray Tollison, R-Oxford, said he would consider amending another bill dealing with the state’s existing, limited, charter law to include a version of the rejected proposal. It wasn’t clear if legislative rules would allow the proposed system for funding the schools to be added by amendment.

“We’re trying to figure that out,” Tollison said, as he went into the office of Lt. Gov Tate Reeves after the Senate adjourned yesterday.

“I will not give up on my goal of providing every kid in Mississippi an opportunity for a better life, and Chairman Tollison and I are working together to find solutions to change the status quo,” the Republican Reeves said in a statement.

House Education Committee Chairman John Moore, R-Brandon, said that he didn’t understand how committee members, especially those from better-performing districts, could reject the measure.

“The parents are out there begging, begging for a good educational opportunity and apparently the members don’t want to see that happen and it breaks my heart,” Moore said.

Proponents and opponents both attended committee meetings to lobby House members, with many people left standing outside the jammed meeting room.

Emotions ran high.

As opponents in the hall broke into applause at the news of the bill’s defeat, one supporter standing near Rep. Wanda Jennings, R-Southaven, said “you ought to be ashamed of yourself. You’re nothing more than a prostitute.” The remark was recorded by a Mississippi Public Broadcasting reporter interviewing Jennings, although it’s not clear it was directed at Jennings.

She was one of three Republican DeSoto County House members who voted against the bill. Jennings later said she didn’t hear the remark.

A supporter is also alleged to have shoved Rep. Reecy Dickson, D-Macon. It was unclear if she was the same person caught on tape, and witnesses disputed what happened. Dickson declined to comment. Capitol Police Chief Wallace Rayborn said he interviewed the woman, and said Dickson declined to file assault charges.

Afterward, leading charter schools supporter Rep. Chuck Espy, D-Clarksdale, made a heated speech before the House in which he vowed to personally investigate what happened to Dickson.

“Lady, I respectfully and I tell you I am sincerely sorry for anything that happens to you in these halls,” Espy said. “I am going to get to the bottom of it and I am going to demand a formal apology to you.”

Proponents have repeatedly blamed current school leaders, especially superintendents, for opposition to the bill.

“The education establishment has built a Berlin wall around the current system to keep their own people from escaping to freedom,” said Forest Thigpen, executive director of the Mississippi Center for Public Policy, a conservative-leaning group and one of the architects of the charter effort.

One superintendent repeatedly singled out is Milton Kuykendall, the elected superintendent of the state’s largest school system, DeSoto County. But Pat Nelson, R-Southaven, denied that he was swayed or intimidated by Kuykendall.

“He’s not asked me one time to vote for or against this bill. I know there’s a misconception that he exerts a lot of influence,” Nelson said.

The bill before the House committee would have given a veto to school districts rated successful, high performing or star, would have required half of all charter school teachers to have state certification and barred all-online charter schools. Nelson said he was relatively supportive of that version, but worried concessions would be stripped out when House and Senate leaders met to reconcile differences and the bill would come back with “manure” in it.

Another opponent, Rep. Rufus Straughter, D-Belzoni said charter schools wouldn’t help enough students and that he remained afraid private schools would find ways to reincarnate themselves as public schools. He instead advocates an intensive effort to improve parental involvement.

“If we want to help the public schools to be better, we’ve got to find ways of helping the community,” Straughter said.

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