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Charter schools: Senate passes bill

NATCHEZ — The Mississippi Senate passed for the second year in a row Wednesday a bill that opens the possibility for charter schools within the state.

In 2011, a similar measure passed the Senate but did not pass the House.

The bill passed 31-17 Wednesday.

Charter schools operate in and are funded by local school districts but are semi-autonomous and not necessarily subject to the same rules and oversight as other schools in public school districts. Legislators have predicted that this session will be dominated by education reform, with charter schools playing a prominent role in that reform.

Those in favor of the reforms say charter schools can improve student achievement by thinking outside the regulatory box, while those opposed to the charter system say it redirects funding from already ailing districts.

Senate Bill 2189 would establish a board that will authorize the formation of charter schools in school districts rated “C,” “D” or “F,” regardless of input from the local school boards. Trustees in local districts rated “A” or “B” would still have a say in the formation of charter schools in those areas.

While the new legislation has echoes of the abortive instrument from last year, it is a better bill, said Sen. Melanie Sojourner (R-Natchez), who voted for the measure.

“I think the bill is a really solid bill, and I think it addresses a lot of the concerns we had last year,” Sojourner said. “It clearly defines which school districts are eligible to establish a charter school.”

Though several amendments to the bill were debated, the only one that passed was one that requires the closure of charter schools with an “F” rating two years in a row. The possibility of virtual public schools was also removed from the bill.

Sojourner said she believes that the bill’s only weakness was that it wasn’t comprehensive enough.

“One of the things, as we talk to this, that sticks out to me is that 14 years ago the total expenditures for education in Mississippi was $2.2 billion, and today is $4.4 billion,” she said. “Of the 152 school districts we have, only 50 of those have ‘A’ or ‘B’ rating, and only 3 of those have an ‘A’ rating; two-thirds of your schools are in ‘C,’ ‘D’ or ‘F’ status. We really need to look at what is the method in which we are going at it in terms of tackling education and not just in expenditure.”

The senator said she would have liked to see the virtual schools option included in the bill, and that she was disappointed that an amendment that would have made it easier for students with special needs to enter a charter school was not in the final passage.

“I can’t understand why you would deny a parent the right to get their student the ability to get into a school that could meet their need,” she said.

Sen. Kelvin Butler (D-Magnolia) could not be reached for comment. He voted against the measure.