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Federal Money a Factor in Miss. Charter School Debate

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Mississippi legislators are considering a charter school proposal that proponents say could better position the state for the federal Race to the Top competition and provide an option for parents with children in struggling schools.

The Obama Administration has set aside $4.35 billion for states in its education reform competition. In Mississippi, any boost in education funding would be welcomed, some lawmakers say.

But debate has been heated on proposals to give parents the option to create charter schools and "new start" schools in an effort to convert failing ones. Mississippi has 212 schools that are classified as failing or at risk of failing. The state has a total of 951 elementary and secondary schools.

Generally, charter schools are supported with public funding but have a different governing structure and don't have to adhere to all state mandates.

"It gives parents an option. This hopefully will prevent a lot of these schools from being under (state control) later on down the road," said Senate Education Committee Chairman Videt Carmichael, R-Meridian.

Carmichael said the state could earn extra points if it has a charter school law.

A former teacher and principal, Carmichael said the state has a chance to receive between $47 million to $175 in the federal competition, "depending on what we apply for." The program provides grants to states that take a series of steps, including stricter evaluation of teachers and principals.

Saturday is the deadline for agreements on general bills to be filed.

Mississippi didn't submit an application for the first round when 16 states were picked. The state is going to submit an application for the next round.

Mississippi Superintendent of Education Tom Burnham is concerned about how the measure could affect his agency. He said his staff is already stretched thin assisting in the oversight of five school districts under state control. He told House and Senate negotiators this week that two more school districts could be taken over within the next few months.

"There's not an infrastructure to manage charter schools with the limited personnel. Hopefully we wouldn't be put into that position," Burnham said.

House Education Committee Chairman Cecil Brown, D-Jackson, acknowledged the concern about resources, but he also said the agency doesn't have the capability to help all 212 schools.

Other resistance has come lawmakers who represent the poverty-stricken Mississippi Delta region, which has majority black public school systems.

"Charter schools is not the answer to the problems in education. The answer to the problems is fully funding education and making sure you have the people in place to improve the school district," said state Sen. David Jordan, D-Greenwood.

Jordan said he's the product of poorly funded schools, but educators learned to make due with what they had.

"I was classmates with Morgan Freeman at Broad Street High School in Greenwood. He's worth millions of dollars today. I came from the cotton fields and earned two degrees, served as city councilman and a legislator. Don't tell me about failing schools," Jordan said.

Rep. Clara Burnett, D-Tunica, one of the House negotiators on the proposal, said she doesn't even want the term "charter" in the bill.

Rep. Chuck Espy, D-Clarksdale, is one of the few Delta lawmakers in favor of charter schools. Espy said he wants to take legislators on a tour of KIPP Delta Public Schools in Arkansas. He said children from all socio-economic backgrounds have excelled in those charter schools.

"People in the upper echelon of the financial structure are at this Capitol. They can put their kids any place in the world. They have options. What about the single mother in the Delta that's just making ends meet?" Espy said.

The Tennessee Legislature went into special session to make changes to that state's laws to qualify for the program, he said. "Everybody is going over the call of duty and here in Mississippi we have nothing to lose and we still won't get up and fight for quality education," said Espy.

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