Lawmakers Take Aim at Charter School System

It’s no secret that South Carolina’s education system is regarded as one of the worst in the country. In many cases, lawmakers have turned to increased spending and growing government programs to solve the state’s education crisis, but by and large, these solutions have failed to produce desired outcomes.

However, one segment of schools in the state appears to be showing signs of promise — charter schools.

Charter schools offer alternative educational opportunities separate from traditional public schools, and are formed by corporations operating under the sponsorship of either a local school district, an independent institution of higher education, or the South Carolina Public Charter School District (SCPCSD).

For parents, children, and educators, these schools provide a valuable alternative to the conventional public school system, and avoid much of the red tape that comes with it. They allow schools to innovate with new education approaches while largely remaining accountable to the same academic standards public schools are held to. This degree of flexibility has pushed the movement to expand rapidly. In fact, there are over 70 charter schools in South Carolina.

And still, despite growing numbers in the state, South Carolina’s charter school system is in its infancy. Charter schools first appeared in 1996 when lawmakers passed the State Charter School Act – the legislative framework establishing the rules and guidelines for their operation. A decade later, the SCPCSD was created as the first stand-alone charter school district. Most recently, the first institute of higher education (Erskine College) registered with the Department of Education (DOE) to become a charter school sponsor. Currently, the SCPCSD and Erskine are the only two charter school authorizers in the state, excluding local school districts, but that number is likely to increase.

Needless to say, the General Assembly has taken note of this trend. During the 2017-18 legislative session, lawmakers filed several bills that could significantly alter the course of charter school development in the future. Here is an overview of those bills and where they currently stand in the legislative process.

H.5018 – Higher education sponsors restricted to three charter schools – in the House Education Committee

This bill would limit the number of charter schools that could be sponsored by colleges and universities. Under current law, there is no limit; under this bill, a college or university could only sponsor three charter schools. The bill would also prevent college or university sponsors from retaining an administrative fee from public funding for the charter school, but it would allow the SCPCSD to retain up to two percent of state appropriated funds for every charter school it oversees.

Finally, the bill requires the DOE to post information online regarding every charter school in the state, including audits and annual reports, etc. The bill also lays out guidelines and requirements for the charter schools’ annual reports, which must include testing results, student growth and improvement data, etc.

While proper accountability and transparency mechanisms are an integral part of any public enterprise, this bill’s guidelines would simply chill the charter school movement without increasing positive outcomes for the students. There is no apparent reason a public college or university should be prohibited from sponsoring more than three schools, if it has the resources to do so effectively. Prohibiting independent sponsors (i.e. any sponsor other than the Public Charter School District) from retaining administrative fees from the public funding allocated for its sponsored school(s) while permitting the SCPCSD to do so would place independent sponsors at a distinct disadvantage and make it more difficult to operate. Finally, the reporting and posting guidelines are overly burdensome and seemingly arbitrary.

The value of the charter school approach is the flexibility and innovation that comes from a non-standard, community-driven approach to education. This bill’s approach runs counter to that unique competitive advantage.

H.4808 – New adult charter school pilot program – in the House Education Committee

This bill would create an adult charter school pilot program, geared toward assisting adults to obtain their high school degree or an industry certification, and be placed in the workforce.

While this is an innovative approach, adult education, industry certification and job placement is substantially different from K-12 education. Incorporating the former into the charter school program could result in the distortion of oversight and regulations from the original mission and scope of the charter school system. More importantly, this bill does not address the funding issue, which could lead to K-12 education funding being diverted to this adult education program. Overall, improving access to education is good policy when properly implemented, but this legislation raises serious efficiency concerns.

H.445 – Revises charter school system – recommitted to the Senate Education Committee

This bill is an overhaul of charter school system regulations. It would give the authority to approve charter school sponsors to the State Board of Education, instead of simply allowing sponsor applicants to register with the DOE. It would place new requirements on charter schools and their sponsors in a number of areas, including expansion requirements, financial practices, teacher certification, sponsor transfers, etc. Charter schools would also be required to participate in the state’s annual academic accountability assessments. The bill would also permit the state treasurer to create a debt reserve fund to enhance charter schools’ ability to finance capital projects, which could ultimately encourage more borrowing by schools.

While a number of the new requirements in this bill are a codification of current best practices already in use, other regulations – such as the conditions placed on charter school expansion – deserve close scrutiny to ensure they are not unduly burdensome. More importantly, however, this bill centralizes control over charter schools in the State Board of Education by giving it the sole authority to approve charter school sponsors. As the State Board of Education is a largely unaccountable entity that controls education policy in South Carolina’s public school system, this provision is highly concerning. Finally, further incentivizing charter schools to incur more debt is a highly questionable policy, particularly for a state already saddled with debt.

H.4322 – Allows for charter schools in the workplace – in the House Education Committee

This bill would enable businesses to help establish charter schools, or partner with existing charter schools. Under this arrangement, the business would “donate substantially” to the school (which could include the school facilities, etc.) in exchange for priority enrollment for employees’ children. Business representatives would also be eligible to sit on the charter school board.

While this also presents an innovative approach to education in certain scenarios and is worth exploring, this bill could also enable large corporations to take over existing charter schools, eventually displacing students whose parents are not employed at the corporation. As this could be disastrous for a community-founded charter school and difficult for community leaders and parents to oppose, this approach merits extensive scrutiny.

Conclusion

As we are almost three-quarters of the way through the 2017-2018 legislative session and none of these bills are out of committee, it is unlikely that any of these bills will pass into law this year. While S.445 did pass out of committee last year, it was sent back to committee this past week. That particular legislative move generally means the bill is dead.

However, all of these bills indicate that as the charter school movement continues to grow, lawmakers will likely continue to propose a variety of changes to the system – some positive and some negative. As educational choice is an essential element of a free state, we will continue to monitor this trend in the weeks and months ahead.

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