April 3, 2013 10:13:13 AM
JACKSON -- Charter schools have cleared their most difficult remaining legislative hurdle in Mississippi.
House members voted 62-56 Tuesday with no debate to approve a House-Senate agreement on House Bill 369.
It was one of a number of education bills that House and Senate members approved as they rush toward the end of the 2013 regular legislative session.
"It really is a historic day for education in Mississippi," Republican Gov. Phil Bryant said outside the House chamber after several bills passed. "It is long overdue. Now, the implementation begins."
Charter schools -- public schools that agree to meet certain standards in exchange for less regulation -- would have to be nonprofit entities. So would management companies.
On Monday, senators agreed to the exact bill the House passed in January. The Senate must still approve it and send it to Bryant.
Mississippi grades districts on an A-F scale. Boards in districts graded A, B and C would get vetoes over charter schools in their boundaries. Students wouldn't be allowed to cross district lines to attend a charter school in another district. That bar could impede charter schools in small and rural districts, because charter schools would have to attract large fractions of all students to be able to operate economically.
House negotiators had offered a bill that would have allowed students zoned for D- or F-graded schools within D- or F-graded districts to cross lines. But House leaders warned even that limited provision could cost votes, and the Senate decided not to risk it.
"Governing is about compromise," House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, said in a statement. "It is about getting the best product while maintaining the majority of votes."
Proponents including Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and Rep. Charles Busby, R-Pascagoula, said they hope charter schools will be authorized for more students once some are set up and Mississippians grow comfortable with them.
"I think it focuses charter schools on the neediest students in our state, and I think it gives charter schools a chance to prove themselves," said Busby.
When Busby stepped to the microphone, no opponents of the bill wanted to debate, in contrast to 10 hours of debate and bill-reading in January.
"I guess today was painless. Getting here wasn't so painless," Busby said. "I think everyone had counted the votes, and I think everyone is happy with the bill."
Two House members -- Rep Donnie Bell, R-Fulton, and Rep. George Flaggs, D-Vicksburg -- switched from supporting the bill in January to opposing it Tuesday.
"It's a philosophical difference with my district," Flaggs said. "None of my constituents want it."
-- House members passed Senate Bill 2347, requiring third-graders to prove they can read at a basic level to advance to fourth grade. Lawmakers have agreed to spend $9.5 million to fund the program. Parents of students in grades K-3 who fall behind would receive written notification that their child is in danger of being held back and will get "intensive intervention." Third-graders could be held back starting at the end of the 2014-15 school year. The state Department of Education would select certain low-scoring schools for intervention and appoint a supervisor for each school to help.
-- The House and Senate passed House Bill 1530, which requires schools to count students absent if they're gone for more than 37 percent of a school day, unless absences are excused under state rules. Proponents say that too many schools are lax on counting students absent in an effort to pull down more state money. State money is allotted to schools based on average daily attendance.
-- House members passed Senate Bill 2658, which requires high schools with a graduation rate of less than 80 percent to submit improvement plans. It also creates a $1.5 million scholarship program for teaching candidates with high test scores and grades and authorizes $1.5 million for teacher merit pay pilot programs in the Lamar County, Clarksdale, Gulfport and Rankin County districts.