A charter school law in Mississippi passed in 2013, and now it is about to be expanded by legislation moving toward Gov. Phil Bryant's desk.
On Thursday, the Senate approved changes to the charter school law with a 24-21 vote that would enable students attending C, D, and F-graded schools to enroll in charter schools in different districts.
At first, some theorized that the Senate might attempt to confer with House leaders to discuss supporting even more expansive charter school growth, but the narrow margin on the smaller tweaks to the expansion indicated that it could be challenging to get further concessions for charters, reports Bobby Harrison of the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal.
The new legislation is supported by Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves (R), presiding over the Senate, and Education Committee Chairperson Gray Tollison (R-Oxford).
When the vote on the proposal took place, seven Republicans were not present. The absentees may have opposed the charter school bill, but ducked out to avoid clashing with the Republican lieutenant governor's proposal.
"This is another step in ensuring that every child in Mississippi has an opportunity for success in life," Reeves said in a prepared statement after the bill passed. "This bill should open up the possibility of public charter schools in smaller districts in the Delta and other small struggling districts throughout our state."
Charter schools are privately run but publicly funded. At this time, there are only two charters in Mississippi, both located in Jackson, and supporters believe the law should be expanded to allow for charter schools to expand into more rural areas.
Unless the local school board approves, current legislation does not permit the addition of a charter school in a district except in D and F districts.
Supporters of Senate Bill 2161 say that charter schools offer parents choices if they are unsatisfied with traditional public schools. And, they say, the competition among schools will encourage public schools to improve, reports Geoff Pender for The Clarion-Ledger.
Critics, however, opine that charter schools take money away from the public education system, which they say is already underfunded. They add that there is no evidence yet that the two new charter schools are performing better than traditional public schools.
But Tollison countered by explaining that there is not yet enough information to make a comparison since the Jackson schools have been in existence for less than a year. But, he continued, there is "substantial research" that charter schools in other states have shown improvement.
"This is a parent's choice, not a member of the Senate's choice," Tollison said. "â¦ Your constituents are deciding for themselves it's better for their children."
Empower Mississippi President Grant Callen said he was grateful to Lt. Governor Reeves and Mr. Tollison for steadfastly supporting new opportunities in education for Mississippi families who are "trapped" in failing schools.
Callen said the unwavering support for this new law and the commitment of Reeves and Tollison to Mississippi's children would provide additional families with options for choosing the best education for their children.