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Lawmakers in Mississippi passed legislation on Wednesday that will expand charter schools in the state, a victory for supporters who have made five attempts in five years to change the state’s current charter school law.

Mississippi charter schools
Students at a child care provider in Mississippi. (Photo by Kim Palmer)

The bill would allow the publicly-funded, privately-run schools to open in low-performing districts, and would give school boards in high-performing districts the power to approve or veto charter applications in their area. A 2010 state law in Mississippi makes it possible for failing schools to be converted to charter schools if more than 50 percent of parents vote in favor of the conversion. Although schools were permitted to start converting in the 2012-13 school year, none of the 35 failing schools that are eligible ever made the attempt.

Charter schools have been a contentious topic in the state for years, igniting debates over race and poverty and creating sharp divides amongst lawmakers. While supporters say increased school choice could improve education in a state with some of the lowest test scores in the nation, opponents fear charters will only reach a small number of students and could further segregate state schools.

“We are doing this at a time when we are failing to properly fund our public schools,” said Senator Hob Bryan on Wednesday to members of the Senate, referring to the fact that Mississippi has only fully funded its school system twice since 2002. Bryan, who voted against the bill, also expressed concern that charter schools would be able to cherry pick students, potentially leaving more difficult students in public schools.

The legislation passed Wednesday will allow up to 15 charter schools to open in Mississippi, with the application process beginning in December. Original provisions that would have allowed for-profit companies and virtual charter schools were removed from the final version of the bill. Schools would be up for renewal every five years, with those failing to demonstrate adequate performance subject to shorter renewal terms. A provision in the bill allows for up to 25 percent of a charter school’s staff to be exempt from Mississippi teacher certification standards. However, these teachers must complete at least an alternative certification program within three years. Students would not be allowed to cross district lines to enroll in charters, a source of concern for some charter advocates.

“This will have a damper effect on where charters can locate,” said Rachel Canter, executive director of the non-profit Mississippi First, who helped write the original bill last year. Since a charter school’s demographics must reflect those of the district where it resides, rural charters might struggle to attract a representative sample from a single district without having a large effect on that district’s enrollment numbers, Canter said.

Todd Ziebarth, vice president for state advocacy and support for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, says that although he wishes the legislation did not limit enrollment to students within each school’s district, the new law is a step in the right direction for Mississippi. “It makes some major improvements,” Ziebarth said. “For the first time, [it] will actually allow real charters in the state.” The alliance ranks charter laws annually, and Ziebarth says that Mississippi has always been ranked last out of the 43 states that have charter laws. “I don’t think they’ll be moving up to the top of the list,” Ziebarth said. “But I think they’re going to move far up.”

The charter school decision comes on the heels of Tuesday’s passage of a bill that will bring state funding to selected pre-k programs in Mississippi for the first time. Hours after the charter school bill was passed, the Senate also voted to pass a literacy bill that will hold most students back in third grade if they are not reading at grade level. Gov. Phil Bryant, who last year declared that education would be the focus of the 2013 legislative session, said in a statement Wednesday that he intends to sign the acts into laws.

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