April 2, 2013 9:57:27 AM
JACKSON -- Faced with repeated warnings that changes could jeopardize support, Mississippi senators have agreed to the House version of a bill to expand charter schools.
An agreement between the House and Senate was filed 20 minutes before an 8 p.m. CDT deadline Monday to work out differences between the chambers. The bill (House Bill 369) must still be agreed to by a majority of both the House and the Senate and signed by Gov. Phil Bryant.
The House bill would allow a seven-member board to approve up to 15 new charter schools a year. Boards in districts graded A, B and C would get vetoes over charter schools in their boundaries. Mississippi grades school districts on an A-F scale. No student would be allowed to cross district lines to attend a charter school in another district. That bar on crossing district lines could impede the creation of charter schools in districts with fewer students.
Charter schools -- public schools that agree to meet certain standards in exchange for freedom from regulations -- would have to be nonprofit entities. So would their management companies.
The House earlier voted for the bill 64-56 in the early morning hours of Jan. 24 after 10 hours of debate and bill-reading.
However, one supporter of the bill has since died and another is recovering from a serious illness. It was the narrow margin of that vote that led House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, to resist many of the changes that Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves wanted. House negotiators would not bend on Reeves' desire to limit the veto power to only school boards in A- and B-graded districts.
"Though we hoped for a bill that would not send the message that 'C' was OK in Mississippi, we agreed to compromise to give 125,000 Mississippi children an opportunity for success," Reeves, a Republican, said in a statement.
By Monday, the only issue that was in play was whether students would be able to cross district lines to attend a charter school in another district. Reeves favors free crossing of lines. The House offered to allow students who attend D- or F-graded schools within D- or F-graded districts to cross lines. But Laura Hipp, a spokesman for Reeves, said House leaders declined to guarantee they could pass the bill with that change.
"We asked on that offer if they could give us a letter in writing to guarantee they could pass the compromise. They said they could not," Hipp said, explaining why Reeves decided to stick with the original bill.
"We don't have the appetite or the votes to do a complete crossing of district lines," said Rep. Brad Mayo, R-Oxford, one of the three House negotiators.
Even a limited bill would still be a big victory for charter school advocates. Last year, charter schools died in a House committee
"I applaud House and Senate leaders for coming to an agreement and sending me a workable public charter school bill," Bryant said in a statement. "I have long supported public charter schools and believe in the opportunities they give our children."
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.
Under the charter school proposal, a separate seven-member authorizing board would solicit and approve charter school applications, for both new schools and conversions. The board would begin operations Sept. 1 and seek proposals Dec. 1. Charter schools would be authorized for five-year terms.