The last few days have been pretty eventful on the charter school front, which is why I decided to devote a separate blog post to the topic. First, I will digress into some background for those of you unfamiliar with the charter school debate in Mississippi.
In 1997, the Mississippi Legislature passed a charter school law which enabled traditional public schools to convert into charter schools if the faculty at the school and the school board in the local district approved the change. The bill also capped charters at six, one per Congressional district (in 1997, Mississippi had 5 Congressional seats) and an additional charter for the Delta region. Because this law restricted charters to conversion schools, only one charter school was ever formed, the Hayes-Cooper School in Merigold, MS. Hayes-Cooper, which was designed and still operates as a selective enrollment magnet school, dropped its charter status fairly quickly. As a result, Mississippi had no charter schools when the law sunset on July 1, 2009.
The original charter law was very restrictive for a reason: some feared charter schools might be an opportunity to funnel public dollars to all-white private academies created across Mississippi as a stay against desegregation. Since charter schools were championed for many years by persons who did not advocate for public education in other ways, the distrust for the concept has only grown. Furthermore, more recent attempts to expand/re-new charter legislation have produced very permissive charter bills which leave unresolved many legitimate concerns. These bills, and the persons who have supported them, have alienated legislators who may have otherwise been open to the concept. Although Legislative Black Caucus members in the House have been the strongest opponents of charter schools, some white House Democrats have also been strongly opposed. This opposition persists despite the support for charter schools from President Obama, Secretary Arne Duncan, and other Democrats.
Fast Forward to 2010
All of the House charter bills died on February 2, the deadline for House committees to take action on their own bills. SB 2293, the only charter school bill offered in the Senate, passed the Senate floor 29-14 on Tuesday, February 9, 2010, after heated debate. All 14 nay votes came from Senate Democrats, and a motion to reconsider the bill by Senator Jordan (D-Greenwood) was tabled today, February 11. By passing the bill from the floor and defeating the motion to reconsider, the bill will advance to the House next week.
This keeps the code section on charter schools alive and allows the House to consider charter legislation. However, this does not mean that the House has to consider only the language in SB2293. Through the use of the strike-all amendment, the House could replace the language in SB2293 with any charter school language that it prefers. If the House takes up the bill at all, we expect a strike-all to occur. The decision to take up the bill is up to Chairman Cecil Brown, who is the House Education Committee Chairman. At this time, it is very uncertain as to whether Chairman Brown will take up the bill.
Meanwhile, in the House…
One of the bills we have followed with curiosity, HB1043, took a really interesting turn on the House floor yesterday, February 10. HB1043 allows local school districts to completely re-staff schools that are marked as “failing” for three years under the state’s accountability system. To be clear–“re-staff” means release all the employees at the failing school and hire new ones. Along the way, amendments were added to allow, but not mandate, that “good” staff members be re-hired at the school.
During the floor debate on the bill, Rep. Frierson (R-Pearl River) and Rep. Mayo (D-Coahoma) offered an amendment to allow non-profit charter management organizations to run these “new start” schools on behalf of the district, if the district chose to do so. (For those of you familiar with the Chicago Public Schools system, this amendment would allow “contract” schools.) Teachers at these schools would still be employees of the district and the school would still be overseen by the local school board. However, the school would have whatever autonomy granted it by the contract between the management organization and the school board.
Contract schools are charter-like schools but not charter schools. The important point is that the amendment enabled the House to have its first debate on charter and charter-like schools in a long time. The vote was really interesting: the amendment passed almost 2-1, 75-43 with 4 members not voting. The bill went on to pass the floor 86-31 with 5 not voting. Although the amendment did not directly allow charter schools, the passage of the amendment and the bill is strong evidence that the votes for charter schools likely exist on the House floor, if a bill gets that far. However, the fact that only 1 black member of the House voted for the amendment is a bad sign as white House members might find it unappealing to vote for a bill on racial lines.
Considering the events of the last few days, we believe the possibility of charter school legislation is not yet dead. We don’t expect more updates on this topic until next week, but check back with us as I am going to post about big developments with our non-legislative work soon!