Senate revives charter school bill; sets up showdown in House

JACKSON — The Mississippi Senate revived charter school legislation yesterday, giving new life to a cornerstone of Republican leaders’ agenda.

The move sets up a showdown in the House, which has been closely divided on broadening Mississippi’s provisions allowing alternative public schools. An earlier bill was voted down in a House committee.

Senators amended House Bill 1152 yesterday, voting 31-19 to send the legislation to the House.

“I commend the Senate for passing this measure, and I look forward to working with House leaders to enact this legislation,” Gov. Phil Bryant said in a statement.

Proponents say charter schools, public schools that agree to meet certain standards in exchange for freedom from typical state regulations, can help improve academic achievement in Mississippi. Opponents fear charter schools will skim motivated students and money from traditional public schools.

Since the House defeat, negotiations between Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, have focused on trying to find a bill that will win majority support in the House.

“I’m hopeful that the members of the House will look at this legislation favorably,” Reeves said. “I’m hopeful that they will realize this gives students trapped in failing school districts an opportunity.”

The full House will have to vote to either send the Senate plan to conference or approve it, without possibility of floor amendments. If the bill is sent to conference, it could die, because the move would open it up to procedural challenges in the House that won’t be allowed on the direct vote to concur with the Senate.

Rachel Canter, executive director of Mississippi First, an education policy group that supports charter schools, said the straight up-and-down vote means that House members don’t have to fear that the bill will be unfavorably amended in conference.

“That’s it. That’s the law,” she said.

One of the key points of contention continues to be how districts rated “successful” are treated. The Senate bill gives districts rated “star” and “high-performing” a veto over charter schools in their area. Those rated successful would also get a veto, but only until July 1, 2015.

Superintendents have fought the bill in part because students anywhere in the state could enroll in a charter school, even if they’re leaving the state’s best-performing district. Others, including Reeves, have wanted no protection for successful districts, arguing that they in fact are mediocre, despite the label. But Reeves acknowledged that at least a temporary veto for successful districts may be a key to passing the bill.

Three senators who had voted yes for the Senate’s original charter schools bill switched their votes to no — Sens. Steve Hale, D-Senatobia; Kenny Wayne Jones, D-Canton; and Chris Massey, R-Nesbit. Sen. Nickey Browning, D-Pontotoc, who had voted against the bill the first time switched to voting yes.

Under the terms of the current proposal, charter schools would be overseen by a seven-member board, including three members appointed by the governor, three appointed by the lieutenant governor and one named by the state superintendent. The governor and lieutenant governor would have to appoint one member apiece from each of the state’s three Supreme Court districts, and all appointees would be subject to confirmation by the Senate.

The authorizing board would start operations on Sept. 1. The board would agree on contracts with charter schools for five-year terms, setting performance goals that the schools would have to hit. It would be able to grant preferences to schools serving poor students, but would not be required to.

The bill requires the board to take prior results into account when an applicant has run other charter schools. But it does not include more restrictive language sought by The Parents’ Campaign, a lobbying group. That organization had wanted to basically limit Mississippi applicants to school operators who could show success in other states.

The board would have to hold a public hearing in the community where a charter school would be located before voting on an application. Sen. Education Committee Chairman Gray Tollison, R-Oxford, emphasized again that charter schools wouldn’t go where they aren’t wanted. Supporters also said they believed charter schools would never host more than a small fraction of Mississippi’s nearly 500,000 public school students.

“If this were to take off, we might have 10,000 students in public charter schools,” Reeves said.

Opponents continue to worry that traditional schools will lose money and motivated students. Charter schools would collect a per-capita share of federal, state and local funds for each student they enroll.

“The ones that are left, it’s important to make sure they don’t get left further behind,” said Sen. Kelvin Butler, D-McComb.

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