Archived Story

Charter schools bill set for House vote

Published 12:10am Wednesday, January 23, 2013

JACKSON (AP) — A carefully tailored bill to expand charter schools won majority approval of the Mississippi House Education Committee, clearing a hurdle that had stopped supporters in 2012.

Tuesday’s 16-14 vote clears the way for the full House to take up House Bill 369, possibly as early as Wednesday.

The Senate passed a separate bill last week. The two chambers must agree on a single bill before it can go to Republican Gov. Phil Bryant, a charter schools supporter.

Charter schools are public schools that agree to meet certain standards in exchange for freedom from regulations. Proponents say charter schools can improve academic achievement, especially among low-performing students.

“The intent of this bill is to help the lower-achieving subgroups to bridge the gap,” said Rep. Charles Busby, R-Pascagoula.

Opponents fear charters will weaken traditional schools by skimming motivated students and money.

“Mississippi, we don’t have but a few dollars, I was told,” said Rep. Joe Gardner, D-Batesville. “How can we fund two (systems) if we can’t fund one?”

Current Mississippi law allows a small number of existing schools to convert to charters, but none have. Last year, an effort to expand that law was blocked in the House over concerns that too many charters might be created in too many districts.

This year’s House bill limits a seven-member authorizing board to approving 15 schools a year and requires school boards in districts rated “A,” “B” and “C” to approve charters for their districts. This year’s Senate measure doesn’t give that approval option to C-rated districts. The House measure also blocks students from crossing district lines to attend charter schools.

Tuesday, Rep. Tom Weathersby, R-Florence, said limiting charters to low achieving districts helped swing his vote. He’s the brother of Rankin County Superintendent Lynn Weathersby. Superintendents have been a key source of opposition.

“Some of the things that were in the bill were things I hoped we could do like work with our lower-performing districts first,” Tom Weathersby said after the vote.

Busby, a freshman, was tabbed to explain the bill to the committee. He joined the committee in November, when Rep. Linda Whittington, D-Schlater, was bumped off by House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton.

Explaining the 15-school limit, Busby said the number is “what we believe is adequate to make an impact on Mississippi’s education system, while at the same time monitor schools for their performance.”

Mississippi has about 490,000 public schoolchildren. Creating 15 charter schools with 500 students each would cover 7,500 students a year, 1.5 percent of enrollment.

Opponents attacked three main facets. First, they expressed concern that although a charter school would be required to be a nonprofit, it could just be a shell that hires a for-profit operator.

“Why don’t we cover up that loophole?” asked Rep. Gregory Holloway, D-Hazlehurst.

Busby, though, said some successful operators are for-profit companies, and that he wouldn’t want to restrict them from Mississippi. He later described the Knowledge is Power Program as a for-profit operator. San Francisco-based KIPP, which operates a school in Helena-West Helena, Ark., visited by many Mississippi lawmakers, is nonprofit.

Second, they attacked the bill’s failure to require administrators to be certified. The committee defeated an amendment to require half of administrators to be certified.

Finally, they said they feared the bill didn’t contain a strong enough ban against all-online schools, often called virtual schools.

Among those citing those concerns is the superintendent in Busby’s home district of Pascagoula, Wayne Rodolfich. He says that charters, because they will only serve a small share of students, may not be much of an aid.

“I don’t think you fix it by inserting a fraction of the schools in Mississippi with charter schools,” Rodolfich said in a phone interview from Pascagoula. “I think you fix it by funding schools.”

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Online

House Bill 369: http://bit.ly/WRVMW1

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