Meridian Star

March 11, 2013

Senate offers education compromise

By Terri Ferguson Smith / tsmith@themeridianstar.com
The Meridian Star

MERIDIAN —   

    An education funding omnibus bill will go to the floor of the state senate sometime in the next few days.

Sen. Terry Burton (R) described it as an all-encompassing collection of education bills, representing a combination of measures from the Senate and the House.

    "It's not perfect. It's some of what we wanted. It's some of what the House wanted," Burton said. "It's a hybrid."

    The committee amended House Bill 890 with an education reform package that includes proposals from Gov. Phil Bryant’s Education Works agenda such as improving reading skills in first through third grades and strengthening teacher quality. The bill also offers a compromise on public charter schools. The bill will go to the Senate floor for a vote and if it passes, it will return to the House for concurrence.

    Burton, a member of the Senate Education Committee, said the bill does not allow for virtual charter schools which has been a sticking point for opponents. It does, however, allow for-profit charter schools.

    "For-profit, charter schools," Burton said, "that's no different than schools contracting with for-profits now."

    Burton pointed out that schools contract with for-profit businesses such as suppliers all the time.

However, The Parents' Campaign, an education advocacy group in Mississippi, has voiced displeasure with the idea of for-profit charter schools. In an email on Wednesday, Nancy Loome, executive director, said it is among some troublesome parts of the bill. The Parents Campaign wants lawmakers to "Close the for-profit loophole – do not allow for-profits to manage charter schools even by contract. Management by a for-profit is not allowed in traditional public schools," Loome said.

    The amended bill includes a compromise with the House proposal to allow a maximum of 15 new public charter schools annually.  Public charter schools must document community support before opening, and operators must have a track record of academic success at other public charter school locations.

    The Senate proposal would also allow school boards in districts rated as A or B to decide on whether to allow public charter school applications. Districts rated D and F would only need approval from the state’s independent authorizing board.

    In C-rated districts, public charter schools would have to gain approval from both the school board and state authorizing board through 2016. Then public charter schools in C-rated districts would be authorized solely by the state’s authorizing board.

    The bill also allows school districts to convert existing schools into public charter schools through a partnership with a nonprofit public charter school operator.

    Burton said the bill's literacy initiatives are significant.

    "That's the main thing," he said. "Pre-K literacy, reading at grade level, all of those things are important to schools."

    The bill includes requirements to measure literacy skills for students in Kindergarten through third grade, provide intervention programs for students needing assistance and it requires third-grade students to meet reading standards before moving to the fourth grade.

    But Loome said there are other problems with the bill, including the provision of how ratings affect schools and school districts. Allowing children to transfer from failing schools could have unintended consequences, she said, "Not the least of which is that a good school could be inundated and overwhelmed with students from a failing school for whom the school would be unlikely to have adequate capacity."

    The Parents' Campaign suggests that lawmakers strike the option of allowing MDE to send the students of a failing school to the closest school rated C or better without consent of the school or district.

    With regard to charter schools, TPC wants lawmakers to  focus charter schools where the public schools are chronically underperforming, and prohibit virtual charter schools.

    As to literacy provisions, Loome said they should amend the bill to provide re-training for teachers to improve instruction, to provide highly-trained reading coaches (reading experts) in our schools, and to make the bill subject to appropriation.