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Posted at 05:00 AM ET, 03/30/2012

A blow-by-blow account of fight over charter school bill

This was written by Mike Sayer, senior organizer and training coordinator for Southern Echo, Inc ., in Jackson, Mississippi. Southern Echo is a grassroots leadership education, training and development organization that is based in Jackson and works with grassroots communities and organizations throughout Mississippi as well as in the South and Southwest to, among other things, build and sustain a quality, first rate education accessible to all families regardless of race, ethnicity, class, gender, national origin, status, disability or language.

This is Sayer’s highly engaging and telling narrative about what happened in the Missisippi House Education Committee when it met on Wednesday afternoon, March 28, in Room 116 at the State Capitol to discuss legislation that would permit charter schools to open and operate in the state. He follows with an account of Thursday’s developments. This post is long but worth your time.

This is what Sayer wrote to friends on Wednesday about that day’s committee deliberations of the charter school bill:

Good People,

Bam! Crunch! @#!!**#@ Slash! Whoomph! Wait … this wasn’t a heavyweight knock-down slugfest! It was the House Education Committee debating the charter school bill in an electric atmosphere before a packed house of school superintendents, professional education association executives, education advocacy groups, community leaders and grassroots organizers who work with parents and students across the state.

It is possible that all, certainly almost all, of the 31 House Education Committee members were present for this battle.

The “ring” for this fight was the august columned meeting room 116 at the end of the long marble-floored hallway on the first floor of the Capitol. The “referee” was House Education Chair John Moore, Republican of Brandon. A chief protagonist was Rep. Chuck Espy, a long-time charter advocate who was managing the bill as chair of the sub-committee to which the bill had been assigned. Other combatants were members of the committee who, in tag team fashion, used their probing, challenging questions like lefts and rights as Espy sought to bob and weave, retreat and dance, parry and thrust to avoid or push back against the stinging logic of their inquiries.

Chairman Moore brought forth a House Education Committee Strike All – Committee Substitute for Senate Bill 2401 as passed by the Senate. Moore spoke passionately to the importance of the bill and his vigorous support for it. He noted that the committee would have to stay a long time, as long as it takes, to get to a vote on the bill today. [Remember that he said this when it comes up later….]

First through the ropes to knock Espy around a bit was House Appropriations Chair Herb Frierson, Republican of Poplarville. Frierson took a stiff jab at Espy, informing him that the Mississippi Department of Education contends that if the bill authorizes charter schools to have only 50% certified teachers, that this will violate federal law and could cause the state to lose huge amounts of federal education dollars. Espy ducked and replied that this was not a problem and not to worry. Frierson jabbed again, stating that he wanted to be sure that everyone understood that this provision put the state at risk of losing a huge chunk of federal education funds.

Next, Rep. Reecy Dickson, Democrat of Macon, leaned into the microphone and in a very strong voice, started roughing up Espy and Moore by tearing at some confounding paradoxes in the bill. How many failing schools are there, she asked, in the Star, High Performing and Successful districts in which the school boards will have the power of veto over the placement of charter schools in their districts? Espy tried to provide a list of failing schools, but his effort evaporated as Chairman Moore responded that he didn’t know.

Why, Dickson asked, are these better performing districts being given the “privilege of choice,” the power of veto, over the placement of charter schools in their districts, but the underperforming districts are not? Moore stated that it was a compromise and that he would prefer charter schools in all school districts. He said he compromised because he wanted to bring a bill that people would support. The better performing districts are doing a good job already and the underperforming districts are the ones that need it the most, he explained. Besides, he said confidently as if he knew for certain that it was true, if school boards have the power to veto charter schools, they will.

Next into the ring came Rep. Greg Holloway, Democrat of Hazlehurst, with extra-big gloves on. This is a major transformation of education, he noted. We should tread lightly before going all in the first time around. Why not begin with a pilot program to see what works and what does not? Why does the bill obviously provide such favoritism to the charter schools? It is unclear as to why, he complained. He is not totally against the charter concept, he explained, but the traditional public schools and the charter schools should have the same playing field, a level playing field, and this bill does not provide that.

And this 50 percent teacher certification provision, he posited in an ironic voice: “What kind of message does that send to our certified teachers?” Families need options, he agreed. “But if we want to improve education how can we do that by reducing the number of certified teachers?” In his parting shot he noted that the national studies show that charter schools do not outperform charter schools on a sustained basis.

Moore, backed into a corner, came out swinging. Our schools are failing, he derided. “We are dead in the grass,” he argued. We need charters as they have them in other states.

“We need to act now or we will continue to fail!” Espy chimed in. This is not a new effort, he pointed out to Holloway. Rep. Rita Martinson, he said, has been pushing charter schools since 1997. “Charter schools want a level playing field,” he said. “Pilot programs won’t work. Charters do not want pilot programs. They will not come to Mississippi if we only have a pilot program. And Mississippi can get additional federal dollars if we strengthen our charter law.”

Rep. Toby Barker, Republican of Hattiesburg, picked up the cudgel. He wanted to make sure that the bill provided only for virtual charter classes and that the charter schools must use the Mississippi Department of Education virtual class program and virtual providers and cannot go outside to contract with other virtual class providers. Moore affirmed that this is what the bill provided, but noted that he had agreed to it only in order to compromise.

Rep. Jim Evans, Democrat of Jackson, and Chairman Moore got into a clinch in the center of the ring. They tugged at each other over a section in the bill that states that if the provisions of this bill conflict with other state laws that this bill takes precedence. Evans was concerned that this bill might have unintended consequences. Moore tried to reassure him that this provision applied only to charter schools, but noted that the bill also required charter schools to meet all state Accountability Standards. Evans was not satisfied.

Rep. Nick Bain, Democrat of Corinth, who is serving his first term in the legislature, charged out of his corner and landed a hard left hook.

“Education will cure all of the ills of our economy,” he asserted. “I want education reform. But not this bill!” He pressed on.

What remedy, he inquired, does a parent have to make sure that a charter school does what it is supposed to do. To whom can they turn, he wanted to know. Now a parent can go to the school board. A parent’s only recourse under this bill, he explained, is with the Jackson-based state charter authorizer. Which is not a remedy at all, in his view.

Moore, frustrated and contentious, challenged back, “What does a parent have now with an unresponsive administration?”

Bain shot back, “The vote!” Under this bill, he explained further, with the charter school all you can do is leave the school, which is not an effective way to hold the charter school accountable.

Espy joined the battle. “There will be a local governing board that parents can go to.”

Rep. Rufus Straughter, Democrat of Belzoni, after asking for an explanation of how the independent charter authorizer would be selected under the bill, disgorged his distress. “I am disgusted,” he shouted into the microphone, “that non-certified teachers can be hired over certified teachers!”

Espy, trying to maintain his balance, resorted to farce. “What if a charter school wanted to hire Claiborne Barksdale [head of the Barksdale Reading Institute] to use his valuable skills and experience to teach in the classroom? They wouldn’t be able to do it because he does not have certification.”

Straughter dismissed Espy’s example as not grounded in reality. Moore stepped in to try to be helpful. He noted that under existing state law Barksdale could get an emergency certificate. Frustrated, Straughter stated that the non-certified teachers stay two years and then they are gone. The charter schools will not solve the problems that we have, he argued. They are not “a cure-all.”

Espy, shovel in hand, dug deeper into the realm of farce when he put forth what can only be characterized as his “swimming metaphor.” There are 1,000 children swimming in Wolf Lake, he began. They are all drowning. You have only eight life preservers. You can’t save everyone, but you would throw everything you can at the kids to save some of them. In short, charter schools are the life preservers.

[That was a show stopper. My mind reeled and I had to concentrate to return my brain to the meeting. Side note: the incisive person sitting next to me asked, “Don’t you have to ask the question as to why the children are drowning?” “Absolutely,” I replied. But there is more!]

Straughter’s blows must have dazed Espy. Out of nowhere Espy began reading from text materials in front of him to explain that No Child Left Behind requires all of the teachers to be “highly qualified.” Therefore, he remarked, there is no need to worry about the charter school bill which only requires 50% certified teachers, since the charters will have to comply with the federal law. Straughter replied, “So why the 50% standard if the federal law requires 100 percent?” [If at this point you want an answer to Straughter’s question, you will be disappointed, but not surprised, to know that there was none given.]

Rep. Reecy Dickson came back into the ring. She was loaded for bear and her aim was straight. First she circled in front of Moore with an easy question to which she already knew the answer. “My understanding is that the local, state and federal money will follow the child. Is my understanding correct?”

Moore, relaxed, replied, “Yes.” Boom! Dickson nailed him with a right cross: “What will be the impact of the loss of these dollars to the charter schools on the traditional public schools? This could have a big impact on every school district. If a school lost 30 students to a charter school, I am told, the loss of funds to the charter school could be as much as $238,000. That’s a lot of money. There are many low-wealth districts that could not absorb that loss. Did anyone look at the financial impact on the loss of dollars due to the transfer of students to the charter schools?”

Moore, somewhat nonplussed and subdued, said, “I don’t know.” Dickson, cornering Moore, pushed him to think about it. Many of our schools have been decimated, she explained, by the lack of funds. What is going to happen to DeSoto if 50 children leave to go to a charter school. Can they manage without those funds? Can any school district? she asked. Moore, desperate to re-establish his footing and seize the offensive, said, “The choice is to do something or to do nothing!”

Espy tagged Moore and stepped between them. “There is a Michigan study. It’s a good study. I should let everyone have a copy. This study says that the charter schools in Michigan made the traditional schools more competitive. There was no mass exodus to the charter schools. And charter schools are not needed in DeSoto, anyway.” Dickson fought back. The issue, she tried to explain to Espy, is not what the school board thinks is needed, it is what the parents elect to do. If the parents elect to transfer their children to the charter schools, she asked, what is the impact on the traditional schools?

Rep. Alyce Clarke, Democrat of Jackson, Vice-Chair of the House Education Committee, who has been in the legislature for 27 years, entered the fray. In a clear and unequivocal voice she said, “I appreciate Rep. Dickson’s question.” Clarke explained that she had just talked with people in Michigan. Landing a hard punch directly on Espy’s assessment, she noted that the people in Michigan informed her that the public schools went down, and many were closed, because of the loss of money to the charter schools. Clarke said that is the same history she heard from the people in Louisiana and Tennessee, which Espy had made reference to earlier in the debate.

Espy, scrambling off the canvas, said he would provide a copy of the Michigan study to everyone and that people should look to KIPP in Arkansas for a good experience with charter schools.

Shortly thereafter, Rep. Joe Gardner, Democrat of Batesville, picked up the narrative. After asking questions about parental involvement and whether students expelled from charters can go back to the traditional school, Gardner asked about charters “cherry-picking” the best students and casting out those that under-perform academically or mis-behave. Espy contended that the bill prohibited cherry-picking because the charters are supposed to reflect the demographics of the district in which the charter is located. But Gardner countered with the question as to whether the charter can cherry-pick within the demographics to keep the “best students” and rid itself of those who are not. Espy switched gears and noted that after years of persistent educational failure the charters represent “a paradigm shift in education.”

As this went on, Rep. Becky Currie, of Brookhaven, was standing at the end of the room near where the chairman and the attorney for the committee, Dewan Johnson were seated. It was obvious that she was surveying the committee table and counting. I could see her lips moving as she counted. I thought she was counting votes. She then leaned toward the chair and whispered to him. I could not see her face. It was 4:30 p.m.and 75 minutes into the debate.

Suddenly, Ding! Ding! Ding! The referee, Chairman Moore, grabbed the mike and announced that there was a “sudden emergency” and that the committee needed to stop for the day by “laying the bill on the table.” The debate will resume tomorrow, he announced, Thursday, March 30 at 1 p.m. Chairman Moore said that Rep. Holloway would make the motion to lay the bill on the table, which Holloway then did.

Chairman Moore asked for a voice vote of the ‘yeas’ and the ‘nays’ on the motion to lay the bill on the table. It was clear to me that the ‘nays ’were much louder than the ‘yeas,’ which would have meant that the debate had to go on. However, after a mini-moment of hesitation Chairman Moore ruled, “The ‘yeas’ have it and all of you who voted ‘yea’ should leave this room immediately.” In a very unusual impromptu demonstration many members of both the committee and the audience shouted that the ‘nays’ had it. But the Committee members dutifully rose to leave anyway.

And poof! Just like that it was over.

It was clear to just about everyone there that the debate was ended by Chairman Moore because the vote counters determined that they did not have the votes to pass the bill today.

I stayed in Room 116 to talk about specific provisions in the bill with a legislator, the committee attorney and an advocate. After 10 to 15 minutes or so, I ambled out of the chamber into the hallway. Ahead of me I saw Chair John Moore still making his way slowly toward the Rotunda at the center of the Capitol.


This is what Sayer wrote about committee deliberations on the charter school bill on Thursday, March 29:

Good People,

The legislative phenomenon known as democraticus interruptus was first identified and named in the diaries of a Roman senator, Horatio the Gossip, in 60 B.C.E. Horatio reflected on the peculiar circumstance that whenever Julius Caesar and his allies in the Senate looked as if they had the votes to defeat the bills urged by the Senate leadership of Cato the Younger and Cicero, his arch rivals, they would refuse to bring the matters to a vote, which was the quintessential marker of the fledgling democratic process. Cato and Cicero would hold the bills for another day when they thought they had the votes to win. And in some cases they would make an excuse or two and refuse to bring a bill to a vote so they wouldn’t be on record as having suffered a defeat. Eventually, Caesar got so pissed he went off to conquer all the nations he could find just to blow off steam and get his head together.

Which brings us to today. [I bet you were wondering where I was going with this.]

The multitudes … our multitudes, not the Roman … gathered twice on, Thursday, March 29, to bear witness to the continuation of the charter school battle begun Wednesday afternoon, March 28.

Indeed, at 12:15 p.m., people began assembling for the 1 p.m. meeting in front of the middle door to Room 204, now the official entrance for the public. By 12:45 p.m. the hall was jammed with far more folks than Room 204 can accommodate, especially if you follow the fire code. Superintendents, executive leadership of professional organizations, Mississippi Department of Education leadership, education advocates and grassroots community organizations were all there.

In fact, a new contingent of earnest and very pleasant Tea Party members assembled next to the door very early on, with their branded Tea Party T-shirts, Tea Party badges, Tea Party business cards, and Tea Party Education Committee member lists on which they were checking off who could be counted on to support the charter bill. [The only unfortunate note was later in the afternoon when I overheard one of the Tea Party members in conversation with another member refer to the rest of us in the hall as “a bunch of vultures.” Hmmm. I didn’t get that. Serves me right for listening.]

1st Meeting: In the first meeting in Room 204 at 1 p.m., people were lined around the room three-deep, sitting on chairs and air conditioning units, standing and leaning, squeezed into the space to drink in the history about to be made, whichever way the vote went.

As soon as Education Chair John Moore tapped on the table to bring the meeting to order he announced that the committee would not take up the charter school bill until later in the afternoon after the House floor session adjourned. He announced that the Education Committee would meet 30 minutes after the House floor session adjourned. At that point about two-thirds of the audience departed, but ready to return later in the afternoon based on the promise from Chairman Moore that the bill would be taken up at that time. [Remember the promise when it comes up later.]

2nd Meeting: The House floor session ended about 3 p.m., which meant that the Education Committee would resume at 3:30 p.m., which it did. After the Committee members were seated and the media settled in place, Chairman Moore came to the middle door, the public’s door if you will, opened it and filled the doorway. He cupped his hands to his mouth and yelled to the stirring mass nudging its way forward toward the door that the Committee would not take up the charter school bill. Those of us standing right in front of Moore, asked, if not now, then when? Chairman Moore said that the next Committee meeting is scheduled for Monday, April 2, immediately after adjournment of the House floor session that begins at 4:00 pm.

Grenada Supt. David Daigneault, who had been gamely waiting all day on his chosen spot near the front of the line, challenged Moore as to why the Committee was not voting on the bill. Moore said, “Because I don’t want to!”

“Why not?” all of us hanging near the door asked in unison. Moore basically rejoined that it was his prerogative as the chair and he was exercising it. Then he smiled and let us in the door. Many left without entering the committee room.

The group that stayed lined itself around the room. It was clear that many committee members were quite surprised at what they heard when Moore shouted to the waiting crowd. The murmuring that leapt from lips to lips was that Chairman Moore must still not have the votes to pass the bill out of committee.

When Moore sat down he announced for the benefit of the committee members that they would not take up the charter bill. Many asked why, and if not now, then when. [And then it got even more interesting.]

Moore stated to the committee members that he had scheduled a committee meeting for Monday afternoon and another for Tuesday morning. He then noted that they might take up the bill Monday, but perhaps not. And if not on Monday, then they might take it up on Tuesday. [There was no breathing going on as people heard the unspoken tag line, “or perhaps not on Tuesday either,” and wondered if that was what “might” meant.]

Tuesday evening, April 2, is the deadline for House committees to vote out or kill the Senate bills. There is no House charter bill. That bill, HB 888, died when Chairman Moore declined to bring it up on the floor of the House. Only the Senate bill is still alive. If the Senate charter bill dies in committee, then there will be no charter bill passed in this legislative session.

Can you say democraticus interruptus?


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