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Charters Poised to Expand in Mississippi...If Lawmakers Can Agree

Both chambers of the Mississippi Legislature have passed measures to significantly expand charter schools in the state. But significant differences between the two bills about the power of school districts over charters must still be worked out between lawmakers in a state where the GOP has a lock on both the legislature and the governorship.

One question, however, that arose in an interview I did for this story: How do the parents living in areas likely (in theory, at least) to be prime real estate for new charter schools feel about them?

The move to expand charters, which has been given significant public support by Gov. Phil Bryant, a Republican, and other state GOP officials, follows last year's wrangling over charter schools. In 2012, legislators failed to agree on legislation that would have increased their presence in the state.

Mississippi has no charter schools operating, and on Jan. 16 the pro-charter Washington-based Center for Education Reform ranked its charter law as the "weakest" of any state in the nation. (Eight other states do not permit charters.)

One key difference between Senate and House members centers on the power of local school boards to approve charters.

Using an A-F grading scale for districts, Senate Bill 2189 would allow only "A" and "B" districts to exercise veto power in the charter school approval process. The version of that legislation that passed the house (House Bill 369), however, would also grant school board approval to districts with "C" grades.

In addition, the house bill would ban both for-profit charter schools, and for-profit management contractors working with charters. The Senate bill bans for-profit charter schools, but not for-profit contractors. Both bills would create a statewide charter school authorizing board, separate from the existing state board of education. Neither would permit virtual charters. Finally, in the senate version, students can cross district lines to enroll in charters, but in the house version, that's not allowed.

After the failure of charter expansion legislation last year, a member of the House education committee who voted against that bill, Rep. Linda Whittington, a Democrat, was removed from the committee by House Speaker Philip Gunn and replaced with Rep. Charles Busby. (Gunn and Busby are Republicans). This move was seen as a tactical decision to ensure charter legislation's passage.

"The governor will sign any charter bill that hits his desk," said Nancy Loome, the executive director of the Parents' Campaign, a Jackson, Miss.-based public education advocacy group that backs charters, with certain provisions.

Charter opponents say the widespread growth of charters would in practice create two school systems when the state's present one isn't adequately supported.

"Mississippi, we don't have but a few dollars, I was told," Democratic Rep. Joe Gardner, who voted against House Bill 369, told the Associated Press. "How can we fund two [systems] if we can't fund one?"

Loome did tell me that while her organization advocates for only the highest-need areas to receive charter schools at first, many parents in those same areas are distrustful of charters, since they believe that if their children don't win lotteries for charter school enrollment slots, their children's current public school will just be left to wither on the vine as charter schools take up more resources. (To put "higher-need areas" in context, estimates put Mississippi's child poverty rate as the highest of any state in the country.)

"We should put these schools where they do the most good," she said.

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