A few times during last night's debate over the Mississippi House of Representatives' charter-school law, HB 369, Democrats were resigned that charter schools were a runaway train they couldn't stop.
Not that they didn't try to put the brakes on the measure. It took more than eight hours after the House went into session at 2 p.m. for the body to finally agree to pass the bill by a 64-55 margin. Democrats, as they've done many times since losing control of the House after 2011, used procedural tricks to gunk up the works.
Democratic House members asked a litany of multi-part questions of Rep. Charles Busby, R-Pascagoula, who handled the bill and offered a record 18 amendments (one amendment to ban for-profit companies from operating charter schools passed before the debate began in earnest). They demanded roll-call votes on each amendment, delivered speeches from the podium and, finally, demanded that the entire 251-page bill be read aloud.
In addition to slowing the processes down--the final vote came after midnight--Democrats' strategy was to point out what they consider inconsistencies in the policy priorities of their Republican colleagues.
"You are setting up a whole system of alleged public education with public dollars, and you have absconded on the law," that requires lawmakers to fund education according to a formula known as the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, or MAEP, said Rep. Steve Holland, D-Plantersville.
Holland unsuccessfully attempted to amend the bill to make full funding of MAEP a pre-condition of the charter-school law going into effect. He noted that he had not observed House Republicans pursue full MAEP funding with the same "zest and zeal" as they have pursued expanding charter schools, which are public in the sense that the schools will have some government oversight and receive tax money for their day-to-day operations. Under both the House and Senate versions, only non-profit organizations can hold a charter to run a school, however.
The House version differs from the Senate bill, limiting charters to 15 a year, giving school boards in districts rated "A," ''B" or "C'' a veto on proposed charters in their districts, and prohibiting students from crossing district lines. The Senate bill doesn't impose a limit, only gives a veto to A and B districts, and allows students to cross lines statewide. House Speaker Phillip Gunn, R-Clinton, offered concessions to opponents because charter opposition is stronger in the House.
The chambers will have to agree on a version before it can go to Republican Gov. Phil Bryant who, during his State of the State address Tuesday, reiterated a desire to sign an expanded charter law.
Opponents say charters will drain high-performing students and money from traditional schools.
The House bill would create a separate seven-member board to authorize and oversee charter schools. Busby defended the idea of setting up a board, although Rep. Cecil Brown, D-Jackson, questioned duplicating the state Board of Education.
"They have a very, very important task: that they only authorize the best schools, that they monitor the performance of those schools, and they take the bold step to shut those schools down if they are not performing well with the money of Mississippi taxpayers," Busby said.
Other Democrats gave a nod to another big battle brewing in the Capitol: Medicaid expansion.
Responding to a comment Busby made about the potential to save children who are stranded in failing schools, House Minority Leader Bobby Moak, D-Bogue Chitto, said that "we could strand a lot of souls" if the Legislature declines the Medicaid expansion allowable under the federal Affordable Care Act.
African American members of the House were skeptical of Republican claims that the charter-school push is aimed toward improving education for poor and black children.
Rep. John Hines, D-Greenville, and Rep. Omeria Scott, D-Laurel, warned that social decay was creeping from the black community to the white community. Hines, who chairs the House Youth and Family Affairs Committee, asked why the chairmen of the House Education Committee and Corrections Committee don't meet and devise a plan to stop Mississippi's rising incarceration rates.
Democratic Rep. George Flaggs of Vicksburg chairs Corrections, and said he plans to introduce a bill that will cut down on incarceration rates that he said has the blessing of Gunn and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves. Flaggs, one of six Democrats to vote for the charter-school bill, is retiring from the Legislature to run for mayor of Vicksburg.
Adrienne Wooten, D-Ridgeland, said she doesn't believe Republicans care about improving education for her constituents. Wooten is African American.
"Don't sit up here and pretend like you care about my community, because you don't," Wooten told the House.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.