January 26, 2013 10:41:30 PM
Jeff Clark - [email protected]
With expanded charter school bills passing the Mississippi Senate and House, the stage is now set for both sides to begin what could be lengthy negotiation before a joint-bill is placed for a general vote.
Before the bill can be presented, legislators on both sides of the aisles and in both branches must first address some key differences between the two versions of the bills.
Charter schools are independently run schools that operate alongside and within public school districts. Charters derive their funding from the state, federal and local funds attached to each child in the public system -- in Columbus, that number is about $8,000. Therefore a charter school in Columbus with 100 students would have $800,000 of taxpayer funds to operate; the school district would have $800,000 less. Charters are operated by corporations and non-profits; some districts restrict charters to high-poverty students and low-performing students from low-performing schools.
The Parents' Campaign, a nonprofit education advocacy group, says charter schools should be restricted to under-performing schools operated by nonprofit entities. The organization calls for a non-political authorizer of charter schools. Not all charter schools are successful, says Nancy Loome, the organization's director, who cites a 2009 Stanford study that found 17 percent of charter schools performed better than their public school counterparts, while 37 percent performed worse.
"The House and the Senate bills are not far apart," said Rachel Canter, executive director for Mississippi First, a conservative think tank based in Jackson. "There are a few key items of difference -- the inclusion or exclusion of "C" districts from the prior approval authority, whether students can cross district lines to attend charters, and whether there should be a cap on the number of charters approved each year. These are examples of the big issues that leaders will have to work out."
The Senate bill allows for the formation of charter schools in any level district, not just the under-performing "D" and "F" districts. The House bill provides for the formation in "D" and "F" districts until 2016 when "C" districts can have charter schools. The issue has been a source of contention for Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, who will lead the negotiations on the bill for the Senate.
"I personally believe parents in every district in Mississippi deserve a choice in their child's education," Reeves said recently. "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."
Canter said her organization supports Reeves' stance on expanded charter schools.
"We believe charter schools should first serve children who have historically been denied quality public school options," Canter said. "Many of these children are in 'D' and 'F' districts. However, there are many children in 'C' districts that are in a 'D' or 'F' school. We believe that only 'A' and 'B' districts should have the ability to approve charter applications prior to their submission to the state authorizer. While 'C' districts are not doing as poorly as 'D' and 'F' districts, a 'C' rating is does not designate the type of excellent public education that children need and deserve. Our goal is to ensure every child has access to excellent public schools."
According to Canter, charter schools are public schools funded through the same per-pupil funding formulas used for traditional public schools and they must take the same standardized tests. The primary difference between charter schools and regular public schools is that charter schools operate autonomous of the district's school boards.
Senate Pro Tempore Terry Brown, R-Columbus, has been vocal in his support of expanding the state's charter schools law since a bill was introduced last year.
During a November 2012 interview with The Dispatch, Brown said charter schools are something that deserved another look during this year's legislative session.
"We got beat on (charter school legislation) last year, but we are going to come with charter schools," Brown said. "Is it going to work? I can't promise you that. I have had two superintendents ask me, 'Brown, do you support charter schools?' and I said, 'I most certainly do.' They asked me why and I said I had no idea. It doesn't matter because what we are doing right now ain't working. I'm just for trying something different."
On Saturday, Brown said the Senate is willing to work with the House on a bill compromise.
"I assume we will send them our version and they will send us theirs," Brown said. "We'll put it in our language and they will put it in their language. Then, we will probably have a joint-committee start negotiation talks. Our bill is more conservative than the House version, but nothing is concrete. I think there's room for them to move on their end and there is absolutely room for us to move on our end. As I've said, I believe we will walk away with an expanded charter school bill when the session is over."
Key differences in expanded charter schools bills
■ Allows formation by school board approval in "A," "B" and "C" districts
■ Allows students to swap districts
■ Creates own board to oversee schools
■ Can have for-profit groups contracting with schools
■ Allows formation in "D" and "F" districts only until 2016, when "C districts can join
■ Students must stay in current district
■ Allows formation of only 15 schools per year
■ Eliminates for-profit groups