January 7, 2013 9:31:35 AM
JACKSON -- A year ago, even some opponents of charter schools expected a bill to pass. But some majority Republicans balked, killing the bill in the House.
So proponents redoubled their efforts, trying to build support for widening the rules that allow alternative public schools run by outside groups. Now they will try again.
"I believe a large majority of Mississippians support public charter schools, and I think an overwhelming majority of Republican Party voters support charter schools," said Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, who has been among the lead proponents for changes in school structure. Gov. Phil Bryant and House Speaker Philip Gunn -- both Republicans -- also back charters.
"It's not going to be the end-all, save-all, every child that's failing won't have to worry now, charter schools are here," Bryant said. "But it will be a help. And I think anything that can help, we need to explore."
But opponents still fear that charter schools will skim money and top students from traditional schools that can't afford to lose either.
The idea behind charter schools is that new managers promise high academic performance in exchange for freedom from many rules governing regular public schools.
Current Mississippi law doesn't contemplate new charter schools, only conversions of existing schools that don't meet state standards for three consecutive years. A total of 35 of the state's 1,000-plus schools are eligible to be converted to charters this year, but only if a majority of parents petition and win approval from the state Board of Education.
Leaders of the House and Senate education committees are drafting bills that would expand charter schools. The measures would allow creation of entirely new schools in addition to takeover of existing schools. A new board would approve charter applications, oversee schools and have authority to close those that fail to perform.
There are three main issues in dispute. That new board is the first. The state Board of Education wants to be the authorizing body for charters, but proponents say new schools need a boss that won't be biased in favor of the existing system.
"We don't want the same leadership that has brought us to the place we're at now," said House Education Committee Chairman John Moore, R-Brandon.
The second clash is over allowing all-online and for-profit schools. Some groups oppose online, or "virtual" schools, especially those run by for-profit companies, saying they have poor track records.
"It appears that what some are framing as 'school reform' is really an effort to push through a for-profit agenda rather than enact what has been proven to advance student achievement," Nancy Loome, executive director of The Parents Campaign, wrote in an email to supporters Thursday. The group supports the charter concept but strongly opposes virtual schools or involvement of for-profit operators.
Bills now being drafted would allow three statewide virtual schools, according to Moore and Senate Education Chairman Gray Tollison, R-Oxford. Nonprofit charter schools would be permitted, but Moore and Tollison said charters should be allowed to hire private contractors just as public schools do. A charter review board would be the focal point for screening out bad proposals.
The biggest conflict is whether local districts should be able to block charter schools in their areas. Tollison and Moore said their measures would allow local boards in A-rated and B-rated districts -- now 50 districts -- to block charters. What's unclear is whether the state's 42 C-rated districts would have the same power. Last year, Reeves pushed provisions that would not give C districts veto power, but some House Republicans wanted C districts to have such authority.
The state began rating the achievement of schools and school districts on an A-F scale this year, replacing an older seven-step scale ranging from "star" to "failing."
Gunn bumped charter opponent Linda Whittington, D-Schlater, off the education panel and replaced her with charter supporter Charles Busby, R-Pascagoula. That could give charter supporters in the House more room to maneuver. But even if the final version of the legislation had made it out of committee last year, Moore said he thinks one or two votes would have decided the issue. Opponents claimed the bill would have failed.
Now, Moore believes there is more support in the House.