By Molly Parker
The state Senate on Tuesday passed a bill that would clear the way for charter schools in Mississippi and sent the controversial measure to the House.
Previous measures have failed to gain support in recent years, but a leading Democrat in the House said some members of that chamber may be warming to the idea.
While states' policies differ, charter schools are broadly defined as nonsectarian public schools of choice that can operate outside traditional school regulations.
The "charter" refers to the performance-based contract in which charter school organizations must spell out their goals and methods for reaching them.
House Education Committee Chairman Cecil Brown, D-Jackson, said the House will have a hearing on Senate Bill 2293 perhaps as early as next week.
Under that measure, groups that could petition the state Board of Education to open a charter school include universities, government entities and nonprofit organizations that are secular in nature.
Parents, for instance, could opt to open a charter school by forming a nonprofit group.
"There's some momentum, but we don't have 174 members in agreement here," Brown said of the Legislature. "We have people over here (in the House) with serious reservations about it. We have to take that into consideration and see if we can work something out."
Some half-dozen bills addressing charter schools died in the House before last week's deadline. That fact, coupled with the House's past opposition to charter schools, foreshadows a difficult fight.
But the charter school movement is growing larger, said Brown, who supports the concept.
"It's clear that more people are interested now than have been in recent years. How many? Is it enough to get something done? I don't know," Brown said.
The 29-19 Senate vote followed a lengthy debate about whether charter schools represent an abandonment of the state's public school system.
It doesn't make sense, argued state Sen. David Jordan, to "create a new model in the middle of a model that we have neglected financially."
Jordan, D-Greenwood, said bolstering Mississippi's public school system starts with adequately funding the promises that already have been made.
"Putting old wine in new bottles doesn't make the wine any better," Jordan said.
The debate stretched on nearly two hours.
Sen. Michael Watson, R-Pascagoula, a leading author of the bill, said the state should not turn away from new ideas while wallowing in poor national education rankings. Mississippi tends to rank 48th, 49th and 50th in the nation, Watson said.
"It's OK with you to allow our students to take place in these ranks?" Watson asked Jordan. "That's an injustice. That's an injustice as well. We're trying to fix that."
Responded Jordan: "You're trying to fix it the wrong way."
Howie Morgan, with the Mississippi chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality, a civil rights organization, is among those pushing for charter schools in the state.
Charter schools provide a choice to parents dissatisfied with their designated public schools who otherwise could not afford an alternative, Morgan said.
"While politics remain the centerpiece, our children will never have a chance of living the American dream."