Miss. NAACP questions some education legislation

Published 11:20 pm Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Moments after the Senate Education Committee approved legislation that targets underperforming schools, a group of civil rights activists gathered at the Mississippi Capitol to ask other lawmakers to reject the bill.

The Mississippi National Association for the Advancement of Colored People held its annual legislative day on Tuesday, urging lawmakers to oppose the “Children’s First Act” and any proposals for charter schools.

The act is an accountability bill supporters say will help underperforming school districts. The bill would make it easier to fire superintendents and school board members, both appointed and elected. It also would allow any employee in a district that’s been taken over by the state to be fired. All employees would still receive due process, said State Superintendent of Education Hank Bounds, who is promoting the measure.

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The bill also would require regular state audits for all school districts.

“I do realize this is controversial,” Bounds told the committee. “We ought to be able to treat an emergency like an emergency.”

Mississippi NAACP President Derrick Johnson said the “Children’s First Act” essentially penalizes schools that underperform because of a lack of resources. Johnson said lawmakers should be fighting to steer more state money into school districts.

“School districts are falling behind because of teacher shortages and a weak tax base,” Johnson said during a news conference in the Capitol rotunda.

Sen. Gray Tollison, D-Oxford, who supports the bill, said the Department of Education has had difficulty dismissing licensed employees.

“If they feel like they’ve got to remove some people who aren’t getting the job done, then this will give them leverage to do that quickly,” Tollison said.

The full Senate has passed a charter school bill, while the “Children’s First Act” has secured committee approval but still awaits full Senate action.

Johnson said charter schools are a form of segregation that uses taxpayers’ dollars.

“It’s taking resources that are currently lacking in public education and redirecting them to a small percentage of students,” Johnson said during a news conference where he was surrounded by dozens of T-shirt wearing NAACP members, celebrating the 100th anniversary of the organization.

A charter school bill that passed this week in the Senate would reauthorize the state’s law and establish two types of charter schools. One would be a public school that converts to operate under a charter granted by the state Board of Education while keeping a traditional attendance zone. The other would be a public school that could draw students from across school district lines after receiving a charter from the state board or a local school board.

Supporters say charter schools offer more flexibility in curriculum and encourage more parental and community involvement. They say it’s also an option for students currently in underperforming schools.

The bills are Senate Bills 2664 and 2628.