At around 2 o’clock yesterday, a fellow charter school advocate informed me that House Education Chairman Cecil Brown was bringing out the Senate charter school bill for discussion, followed by a vote today.    The deadline for the House Education Committee to consider and pass Senate bill 2293 is today at 8 P.M.  If they take no action, the bill will die, and we may have to wait another year for charter school legislation.  I sent my friend an email warning him of dire consequences should he be joking (in the form of a knuckle sandwich).  He called me a few minutes later to say, “This ain’t no fire drill, girl; it’s the real thing.”

My initial elation that charter schools might finally get a fair hearing in the House quickly turned to disappointment upon reading the bill: not only is it not a charter school bill, it isn’t even a workable charter-like school bill.

Summary of the Bill

The strike-all that Chairman Brown is proposing is called the “Innovative Schools Bill” (InnovativeSchoolsBill_030110) and is loosely based off of West Virginia’s “innovation zone” schools.  Under the strike-all, traditional public schools that have been classified as “failing” or “at-risk-of-failing” for three consecutive years are eligible to convert to “innovative schools.”  Once eligible, a group of parents at the school could petition the State Board of Education to gain control of the school, if 50% of the parents of currently enrolled students agree.  If the petition is granted, the parents at the school would elect a 5-person management board to oversee the school’s operations.  The only people eligible for the 5-person board would be parents of currently enrolled students.  The management board could choose to hire a management organization to run the daily academic operations of the school or it could manage those functions on its own.  The local district would still provide many school services to the “innovative school” and the school’s personnel would be considered employees of the district.  The bill caps the number of  “innovative schools” at 8 (2 per Congressional district) for at least six years; it also sets a repealer on the bill for June 30, 2013.

Problems with the Bill

There are innumerable problems with this bill.  For example, the bill may repeal before any school proposals are even eligible to be submitted.  Other problems include serious questions about governance, including the whether the innovative school’s local management board will have any say in the type or quality of services usually provided on a district-level.

Keepin’ Hope Alive

That’s the best thing I can say about this bill.  We’ve made no bones about the fact that we’re not so happy with some of the things in Senate bill 2293.  In fact, we’ve been working our tails off to promote more stringent language to ensure quality in opening schools, monitoring them, and holding them accountable to their performance goals.  But at least we’re on the same planet with the Senate bill.

Reactions to the Bill

Judging by the comments of members who decided to speak up, the Committee was not at all thrilled with the bill.  A few seemed to support it on the grounds that it keeps the option open to get something done in this area this session.  Some of the same legislators who vehemently oppose charter schools also opposed the bill.  But mostly, the committee just seemed a little exasperated.

Much of this exasperation seemed to stem from a desire to attack the problem of school and district leadership as well as one legislator’s general complaint that every effort the House Education Committee has made in the last ten years has been futile.  We humbly submit that if these legislators would like ideas about leadership or effective education policy in general that we are happy to talk to them; research-based ideas are one thing we happen to have in abundance.  And while we understand their frustration, we believe that good ideas and the right people to implement them can solve Mississippi’s education crisis.

One last important note: unlike every charter school bill, the word is that Southern Echo does not oppose the bill.

Where Mississippi First Stands

After the criticisms that the Chairman took about this bill, he challenged the naysayers to come up with workable solutions of their own.  We appreciate that the Chairman is always focused on the end goal of improving educational opportunity for kids, and we hope that some of the legislators on his committee take him up on his offer.  But just in case any of the members are at a loss for what to do, we’d like to offer them three suggestions.

1. Pass the bill to the House floor in order to buy us more time to make it better.

2.  Read our newly released white paper on charter school policy and insist those elements become part of any charter or charter-like policy.

3.  Support substituting important parts–like the sections on the application, the performance framework, or accountability–of HB1275 for SB2293.

I hope this post has been informative for those of you following this debate.  Let us know your thoughts by emailing us at contact@mississippifirst.org.

Rachel

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