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Charter School Expansion Top Priority For Miss. Republicans

By Annie Gilbertson | Published 13 Dec 2012 09:58am | comments
Republican leaders in Mississippi have worked all year to build support for charter schools. Will their efforts pay off? Photo by the Associated Press.
Republican leaders in Mississippi have worked all year to build support for charter school expansion. Will their political efforts pay? Photo by the Associated Press.

JACKSON, Miss.  - Charter schools in Mississippi will once again be on the forefront of the Republican agenda in the 2013 legislative session.   Party leaders called a joint House and Senate Education Committee hearing yesterday aimed at building support for expanding the existing law. Similar Charter school proposals failed last session. So what has changed? In the first of our three-part Education Session Preview, MPB's Capitol Reporter Jeffrey Hess and Southern Education Desk Reporter Annie Gilbertson examine how a media blitz and a single committee seat change may usher the charter school agenda item into law.

Hess: At yesterday's four-hour joint education committee hearing, Republican Party leaders called on policy groups to discuss GOP education reform agenda items. Republican John Moore of Brandon is Chair of the House Education Committee. He says the hearing set the stage for the upcoming legislative session.

Moore: Everything you are hearing here today are templates. These are the issues we will be dealing with.

Gilbertson: The hearing is the latest in Republican efforts to build support for the expansion of charter schools – both in the legislature and among the public. (Just a reminder… Charter schools  are publicly funded schools run by an private or non-profit organization, not the government.)

Hess: They’ve crafted press events, too. Lawmakers recently invited MPB News and a bunch of other reporters to Arkansas. Lt. Governor Tate Reeves says he organized the trip to show off the charter school KIPP, which stands for the Knowledge Is Power Program

Reeves: “It’s certainly making a difference for the 1,000 that are going to this school here in Helena, Arkansas. So if it can work in Helena, Arkansas. If it can work in the city of New Orleans. I am certain it can work in the state of Mississippi as well.”

Gilbertson: KIPP's reputation is not representative of all charter schools. Opponents point to research that shows many charter schools fail to perform better than traditional public schools.

Hess: Lawmakers have relied on the media to push their pro-charter school message. They’ve taken trips to Florida, held public hearings, and brought in big names such as former Florida Governor Jeb Bush.

Gilbertson: OK, so the formula includes a media blitz, but Republicans will also have to collect votes in committee.

Hess: That just got easier. A retirement in the House has led to the reshuffling of committee members.

Gilbertson: Which could mean more supporters in the House Education Committee. After all, the bill failed by just a single vote last year.

Hess: It was Linda Whittington, a Delta Democrat who was moved. She says to an outsider, it sure looks like the move was made to stack the committee.

Whittington: I was one of the 16 that said ‘no’. So removing me, theoretically it flips it to 15 ‘no,’ 16 ‘yes.'

Gilbertson: And what’s the Speaker say to that?

Hess: House Speaker Phillip Gunn of Clinton says yep, that’s about right.

Gunn: We are bringing forward a lot of education reforms this year. From charter schools to appointed superintendents, I think we have got like 15 items that we want to pass. And we are looking for people who want to get on board with that.

Gilbertson: Even with more media coverage and a seat change, a charter school bill will still face resistance from Democrats. Many are concerned that charter schools will siphon off money from poor schools, and some worry about increased racial segregation.

Hess: Still, some Democrats see the writing on the wall.  The Chair of the Legislative Black Caucus Kenny Wanye Jones of Canton believes the only question now is what the bill will look like.

Jones: We do know we have to do something. But in the process of doing something we don’t want to break something that is going to cause the children in public school and more harm than what they are already going through by being disenfranchised from an educational stand point.

Gilbertson: This coming session, Republicans will have to overcome a huge number of policy hurdles to achieve charter expansion. Questions such as who will authorize and oversee charters? What school districts can they open in?  And, there will also be a lot talk about virtual schools – charters that exist entirely online.

Hess: So while Republicans have moved towards passing a charter school bill since last session, there’s still a long road to the Governor’s desk.

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