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Charter school debate moves to Mississippi House

 

Jeff Clark

 

The hot potato that is charter school legislation is now in the hands of the Mississippi House of Representatives. 

 

On Wednesday, the Mississippi Senate passed its version of charter school legislation in a vote that went along party lines, for the most part. The 31-17 vote had the unanimous support of Senate Republicans, with only a couple of Democrats voting with the majority. 

 

The House's version of charter school legislation will likely be less sweeping and more contested. 

 

Rep. Gary Chism, R-Columbus, said the House bill, which has yet to go to committee, will likely allow only 15 charter schools to open each year. Chism said charter schools will only be allowed to open in districts that have "D" and "F" districts until 2016. 

 

"Under the Senate bill, you can ask for a charter school at any level, but the school board has to approve it," Chism said. "Our bill will only allow school boards to establish charter schools in 'D' or 'F' districts. 'C' districts can have members voted on in 2016." 

 

Allowing charter schools in only under-performing districts has met opposition from Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, R-Flowood, who has openly thrown his support behind charter schools expansion. 

 

"I personally believe parents in every district in Mississippi deserve a choice in their child's education," Reeves said. "This issue is about giving every child in the state an opportunity for a good education. Mississippi has more students in failing schools in 'C' districts than in 'F' districts. Those students deserve options for a better education." 

 

Chism said the House bill also allocates charter schools to be a racial representation of the district in which it is established, as well as requiring at least 50 percent of its staff be certified teachers. 

 

"We also want to eliminate the possibility of parochial and sectarian schools becoming charter schools," Chism said. "Our bill makes sure the schools are non-profit schools but they can have for-profit things like there currently are in public schools." 

 

In 2012, the House charter schools bill died in committee. But Chism said Speaker of the House Philip Gunn's decision to remove Linda Wittington, D-Schlater, from the education committee in November could be the key to the bill making it onto the floor. 

 

"Speaker Gunn put Charles Busby (R-Pascagoula) on the education committee and the bill should make it in front of the House this time," Chism said. "I think that if it gets out of committee, it should pass the House in a very narrow vote." 

 

Should the House pass its bill, it will still meet opposition from the Senate, including Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, who opposed the bill on the Senate floor. 

 

"Under (the Senate) bill, if a charter school is established in any location, students from any district may attend it and the local tax money will go to that charter school.," Bryan said. "This means local ad valorem tax will be taken away from the local school and sent to a charter school located in another district. This will hurt our public schools.  

 

"So far as I know, no charter school organization will agree to operate an entire school district. Charter schools, through a number of screening devices, select students and send others back to the public schools. Under this bill, charter school employees are not required to be members of the state retirement system. That means charter schools can recruit teachers from public schools, encouraging them to retire, draw their state retirement, and work at the charter school without paying into the system and without the charter school paying into the system. This will hurt the retirement system. " 

 

Bryan said the charter-school movement will only put the state's public schools in a bigger financial hole. 

 

"We are underfunding our existing public schools by hundreds of millions of dollars," Bryan said. " Instead of using some of the extra funds we have in Jackson to help the public schools, the legislature is using those funds for other things and giving away tax dollars to cronies. We need to follow the law and fund our public schools before we start taking more money away from them to send to charter schools." 

 

Chism said he is optimistic a compromise will be made and the state will have charter school legislation if his fellow Republicans are willing to cooperate. 

 

"The Senate bill passed by a wide margin," Chism said. "If is gets through the House, it will be by a narrow margin. The Senators will see we can only tweak the bill a little bit. I think they will look a lot closer at the House bill if they want to have a bill at all."

 

 

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