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Mississippi Senate approves expanded charter school bill

by Jeff Amy, Associated Press
Sun Herald
January 17, 2013

A bill to expand charter schools in Mississippi easily cleared the Senate on Wednesday, and attention shifts to the House for the second year.

In a 31-17 vote, the bill had two Democratic supporters but no Republican opponents. The vote came after more than three hours of debate, a day after Senate Bill 2189 was introduced and passed by the Senate Education Committee.

Charter schools are public schools that agree to meet certain standards in exchange for freedom from regulations. Mississippi has a charter school law that allows a small number of its schools to convert to charters, but none has done so.

Wednesday, the Center for Education Reform, a pro-charter group based in Washington, called Mississippi’s law the “worst charter law in the country.”

Proponents said charter schools can improve achievement in Mississippi. “I think more than anything this is about closing the achievement gap in our state,” said Senate Education Committee Chairman Gray Tollison. The Oxford Republican wrote SB 2189.

Opponents, though, fear charters will weaken traditional schools by skimming motivated students and money. “The overriding concern is what is going to happen to school districts when you start separating students out,” said Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory.

Coast officials weigh in

Superintendents in South Mississippi had mixed reactions to the Senate’s bill.

Wayne Rodolfich, superintendent in Pascagoula, said he thinks the state should concentrate on improving the failing schools rather than open more schools.

“If you have a magic way of improving education, give us all that flexibility,” he said. “Let all of us do it.”

He also is concerned about money for current programs.

“Funding is going to be a major issue,” he said. “I think it’s important that we don’t destroy existing programs for charter schools. You can’t underfund education and then expect it to excel.”

Arthur McMillan, superintendent in Biloxi, agreed, adding a district shouldn’t open a new school for a small percentage of students.

“If charter schools work and you have a failing school, why not turn the whole school into a charter school?” he said.

Gulfport Superintendent Glen East said he would be willing to try charter schools if they would help students in failing schools.

“I’m not opposed to anything that’s going to help children,” he said. “If we can help children who want to be in an outstanding school, then let’s do it. I’m tired of being 50th (Mississippi’s ranking among the nation’s schools).”

The bill would give districts rated A or B a veto over whether charters can be put there, but those rated C and lower districts wouldn’t get a veto.

Most school districts in South Mississippi wouldn’t be required to allow a charter school to open under the bill.

In South Mississippi, it would apply to three school districts: Moss Point, Pearl River County and Picayune.

The state Department of Education has said it would like to see the rule apply only to districts that received a D or an F.

Governance, financing

A seven-member board would approve charter schools and oversee them, with three members appointed by the governor, three members appointed by the lieutenant governor and one member appointed by the state superintendent.

Students would be allowed to cross district lines to enroll in charter schools, and a local tax contribution from the home district would go with charter students, as well as state aid.

On to the state House

No House bills regarding charter schools had yet been introduced Wednesday evening. But many House members favor allowing C-rated districts to have vetoes as well, and House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, has said the House bill imposes a limit of 15 charters a year.

Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, also a Republican, fought to deny vetoes to C districts last year. He said after the vote Wednesday it is important to have a law “that allows for the largest number of students possible having a public charter school option.” But he didn’t rule out a compromise.

Supporters Wednesday included two black Democrats, Sampson Jackson of Preston and Willie Simmons of Cleveland. Simmons said Tollison made changes that won his vote. He said the charter school law might dovetail with Simmons’ proposal to create a model school in Sunflower County to bolster parent involvement and social services for students.

“It will give them an option at the local level if they desire to utilize the charter school option,” Simmons said after the vote.

Changes from last year

Among the changes Tollison made between 2012 and 2013:

– Requiring applicants to show evidence of “adequate” community support and to analyze the impact on other public and private schools in an area.

– Explicitly banning private school conversions or new charter schools created by private school groups.

– Requiring charters to serve a proportion of under-served students at least 80 percent as large as the share of under-served students in the charter’s home district. The bill defines under-served as students with low family incomes, poor academic performance, special education needs or limited fluency in English.

– Ordering that the authorizing board must close a charter school if it is rated F for two consecutive years or if the school’s performance is the bottom 20 percent of all schools statewide when the five-year contract runs out. Charters could get reprieves for “exceptional” circumstances.

– Requiring 75 percent of teachers to be certified, and the remaining quarter to earn certification within three years. Last year, the Senate bill required only 50 percent of teachers to be certified.

Tuesday, senators amended the bill to require a shutdown after two years of F ratings. Tollison’s draft had said three. The Education Committee amended the bill Tuesday to ban schools that operate entirely online.

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