January 23, 2013 9:47:50 AM
Jeff Clark - [email protected]
After a similar bill died in committee last year, the House Education Committee narrowly passed an expanded charter school bill Monday by a vote of 16-14. House Bill 369 passed through the committee after about 90 minutes of debate, according to The Associated Press.
The bill was presented by Rep. Charles Busby, R-Pascagoula, who was appointed to the committee by House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton. Gunn replaced education committee member Linda Wittington, D-Schlater, with Busby in November. Voting in favor of the bill were 14 Republicans and two Democrats. Voting against it were four Republicans and 10 Democrats. One Republican did not vote. The Senate passed its version of the expanded charter school bill last week.
Two of the main components of the House bill are that it will only provide for the formation of 15 charter schools per year and it will only allow them to be created in under-performing "D" and "F" school districts until 2016. The bill has been contentious between members of the Senate and the House and particularly divisive among some Republicans and Democrats.
Rep. Tyrone Ellis, D-Starkville, represents an area that includes Oktibbeha County, where the school district was recently placed into a state-mandated conservatorship. Although Ellis said he supports education reform, he feels charter schools are not the solution.
"Under (Mississippi's) constitution, we are mandated to educate the state's children, but we did not make the shift to the next level with technology and teaching technology," Ellis said. "As a consequence of us not making the shift, there are those that think we can just bypass the transition. We can't correct the problem if we bypass the foundation. It's like an old building -- you can't retrofit it."
With more than 100 school districts in 82 counties, Ellis said the solution could be an overhaul of the current school districts by repairing what's broken instead of abandoning the public school system.
"Maybe we should look at creating one district per county and finding out what is unique to those counties," Ellis said. "Once we do this, charter schools may not be needed. We need to at least have a model charter school and see how it works before we just throw them out. I currently think they are disingenuous and not the solution to our bigger problems."
One proponent of the bill, Rep. Gary Chism, R-Columbus, said he sees the bill passing through the House by a narrow margin.
"We have 64 Republicans and we may lose five of them," Chism said. "We will probably get 'yes' votes from two members of the (Legislative Black Caucus) and the rest of the votes we will get from white Democrats. It will be the same bill that passed through committee. We have made it as palatable as we can make it."
Although the bill did not pass committee with a two-thirds vote, Chism said the bill was read three times, which makes it eligible for a floor vote. Chism said the bill will go to vote today or Thursday.
Should the bill pass the House, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, who supports charter schools being established at any level, including '"A" and "B" districts, said compromise will be key in passing a unified bill.
"The passage of a public charter school bill in the House Education Committee is the next step in a long process, and I commend (Chairman John Moore, R-Brandon) and Speaker Gunn on their hard work on HB 369," Reeves said. "Over the last two years, all 32 Republican senators and at least six different Democrats, including three members of the Legislative Black Caucus, have at one point voted to support public charter schools in 'C' districts. Why? Because there are more students in failing schools in 'C' districts than in 'F' districts. I remain committed to allowing parents whose children are in 'C' districts to have a choice in their children's education."
The charter school expansion bill has also been publicly supported by Gov. Phil Bryant. During Tuesday's State of the State address to state lawmakers, Bryant said parents should have a say-so in charter school enrollment.
"Not only should we endeavor to pass a workable public charter school bill to give our children one more opportunity to succeed, we must also give parents the option to request their child be transferred to another school through the implementation of statewide open enrollment policies," Bryant said. "My agenda further empowers parents by designating privately-funded opportunity scholarships for low-income families in 'D' and 'F' schools. Parents can use these programs to send their child to a school that better meets their needs."
This story contains additional reporting by The Associated Press.