March 27, 2010 9:05:00 PM
JACKSON -- Mississippi lawmakers on Saturday finished a big chunk of their work for the three-month session by passing final versions of bills that would make general changes to state laws.
They''re taking a break for more than three weeks and will return to the Capitol on April 20 to wrap up a state spending plan for the year that begins July 1. Leaders say they hope that will take only a few days.
Negotiators have agreed to spend about $5.5 billion, but they haven''t divided the money among state programs. They''re hoping to get an additional $187 million in federal money that could also be included in the budget.
When lawmakers return, they''ll also finish debate about authorizing the Mississippi Department of Employment Security to remain in existence beyond July 1. State agencies routinely come up for reauthorization every few years.
This year, an employment agency bill stalled when some Democratic lawmakers wanted to force Republican Gov. Haley Barbour to accept millions of federal stimulus dollars for the jobless. Barbour has balked at changing Mississippi''s regulations to allow unemployment benefits to go to people seeking part-time work.
Among the bills that passed both chambers Saturday was one that would allow low-performing schools to be restructured. Supporters said the change could improve students'' academic achievement, while opponents said it could hurt other schools by syphoning too much money.
The struggling schools could become either charter schools or "new start" schools, both of which are designed to revamp management and increase parental involvement.
"We''re going to get a lot of kids educated," said Rep. Chuck Espy, D-Clarksdale, a charter schools advocate. "We''re going to do it, and it''s going to work."
The House passed the bill 84-29 with little discussion. The Senate passed it 27-11 after an hourlong debate.
Espy is one of the few members of the Legislative Black Caucus who supports charter schools. Many black lawmakers say they''re skeptical of charters in a state where many white families formed private academies after court-ordered integration of the public schools. Carmichael emphasized that the charter schools would be public.
Sen. David Jordan, D-Greenwood, said he opposes charter schools, which could operate free of some regulations, including hours and days of operation. Some charter schools in other states operate six days a week.
Jordan asked Carmichael: "Haven''t public schools always worked for our people?"
"No, sir," Carmichael replied. "If they had always worked, we wouldn''t be in this situation."
Mississippi has 951 elementary and secondary schools, and officials say 212 of those are classified as failing or at risk of failing.
Schools classified as failing three years in a row could become "new start" schools. All the school''s employees would lose their jobs, and a deputy state superintendent of education would choose a new principal. The new principal would hire teachers. Former employees could apply if they wish, but they wouldn''t be guaranteed a position.
The bill would not limit the number of "new start" schools, but some lawmakers said finances could.
Charter schools would be limited to three in each of the four congressional districts. Existing schools classified as low performing, at risk of failing or failing for three consecutive years could apply to convert to charter status.
At least half the families with children in the school would have to agree to become a charter, and a management plan would have to be approved by the state Board of Education. A management company could run the school, if approved, but religious groups could not be in charge.
Rep. Willie Perkins, D-Greenwood, initially held the school bill for the possibility of more debate, a procedural move that would''ve required the House to return to the Capitol on Sunday. Hours after holding the bill, Perkins changed his mind and released it. His announcement was met by a smattering of applause. The bill goes to Barbour.
"In principle, the governor is in favor of charter schools, but he''ll have to look at the particulars of the bill," Barbour spokesman Dan Turner said.