Charters advance, but hurdles remain

1STOCK Capitol Bldg Flowers

by Bobby Harrison

NEMS Daily Journal

JACKSON – Despite near unprecedented debate that started Wednesday afternoon and ended early Thursday morning with passage of charter school legislation by the House, the issue is far from resolved for the 2013 session.

The House, in a vote primarily but not completely along party lines, passed charter school legislation 64-55 after an at-times contentious debate.

While the bill is still technically the property of the House, presumably in the coming days the parliamentary hold on the legislation will be released and it will be transmitted to the Senate.

The Senate bill, which passed last week, already has been shipped to the House.

At this point, the House could accept the Senate language and send the legislation to the governor where he most likely would sign it or the Senate could do the same of the House version.

But the more likely outcome is that one or both bills will be sent to conference where the leadership will appoint negotiators to work out the differences that will then be voted on by the two chambers.

It could be argued that the House is in the driver’s seat when it comes to any negotiations over charter schools, which receive public funding and are accountable for results but are free from many of the guidelines and the governance of traditional public schools.

Gov. Phil Bryant, Speaker Philip Gunn and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, all Republicans, have made passing charter school legislation a top priority during the 2013 session. But it is evident by the marathon debate in the House that the support for charter schools is not as strong in that chamber.

Six members of the minority Democratic Party supported the House leadership’s charter school proposal while six Republicans opposed it. More important is the number of Republicans in the House who say they will not support the legislation if school boards of C-accreditated districts do not have veto authority over charter schools locating within their boundaries.

“I will not vote for it if it has C districts in it,” said Rep. Chris Brown, R-Aberdeen. “It it has C in it, I don’t think it will pass the House.”

Rep. Donnie Bell, R-Fulton, echoed those sentiments.

The Senate bill allows only A and B districts that veto authority. Reeves has been an outspoken advocate of allowing charter schools anywhere statewide, but agreed to give A and B districts veto authority in the bill that passed the Senate.

But if Brown and Bell, as well as others are correct, Reeves might have to yield on the issue of C districts to get a compromise through the House.

Reeves-appointed Senate Education Committee Chair Gray Tollison, R-Oxford, would not tip his hands as far as possible negotiations that he would lead for the upper chamber if the issue goes to conference.

But he said there were many areas of agreement between the two bills.

“The great news is that now the House has a plan,” he said. “We can work from there.”

In general, the Senate proposal is much more expansive and would provide more opportunities for charter schools to open in the state. But there are some similarities – a primary one being that both bypass the state Board of Education and create new boards to authorize and oversee charter schools.

bobby.harrison@journalinc.com

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