Local lawmakers cautiously eye charter schools

Published 9:00 pm Sunday, March 4, 2012

     Local lawmakers expect a long discussion process to surround upcoming charter school legislation and are pledging caution as they take up that discussion.

     Last week the House education committee sent a charter school bill to the full House for consideration.

     District 92 Rep. Becky Currie, R-Brookhaven, sits on the education committee and voted to send the bill on. The bill only passed out of the education committee by a thin margin of 14-12 with several Republicans on the committee voting against it.

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     Currie emphasized a long road lies ahead of any charter school bill.

     “Whatever bill is passed and sent to the governor, we have no idea what it will look like,” Currie said.

     District 53 Rep. Bobby Moak, D-Bogue Chitto, said such a narrow committee vote signals a long discussion by the full House.

     “With that kind of vote you expect there to be some serious issues on the floor,” said Moak, also the House minority leader.

     District 39 Sen. Sally Doty, R-Brookhaven, expressed a reserved opinion of charter school legislation, but voted for the Senate bill, as did every other Senate Republican.

     “I had a lot of reservations about charter schools,” Doty said. “I’m satisfied that the Senate bill is as restrictive as we’re going to get.”

     The House bill differs on several keys points from a charter school bill passed by the full Senate.

     The House bill allows virtual charter schools, whereas the Senate bill did not. The House bill gives local school boards in lower-performing districts the authority to approve charter schools, but the Senate’s bill only gives that authority to a statewide board.

     Both the Senate and the House bill as it currently stands allow districts rated as star or high performing to veto charter schools in their district.

     Doty said she would have preferred to allow successful schools to likewise keep charter schools out of their district.

     “I have come to see it as an option for our lower performing schools,” Doty said of charter schools. “It gives another option to parents where schools are failing.”

     An amendment giving successful districts veto powers failed in the Senate.

     Currie and Moak both echoed Doty’s opinion that further restricting the scope of charter schools may be needed.

     “If we are going to do this, I would like to see it be in districts that are not performing,” Moak said.

     Moak said allowing charter schools only in a few places would allow the state to further evaluate their results.

     “I think a lot of people are voting for charter schools but don’t know how it will impact local districts,” Moak said.

     Currie held out the possibility that the final bill may only allow charter schools in the lowest performing districts.

     “I can see that just taking the failing schools at the beginning may be the thing to do,” Currie said. “If things are going well (in a district), there’s no point in being looked at.”