South Carolina: the next Florida?

Floridians are keeping a watchful eye on South Carolina these days, for two reasons. First, former University of Florida coach Steve Spurrier jumped to the University of South Carolina last year and has the Gamecocks bearing down on the overrated Gators. And now, just when the Florida Supreme Court is tackling the state's successful education reform programs, the South Carolina legislature is close to passing the nation's most significant expansion of school choice in some years, including a much-improved charter school program. A year-long struggle to establish a statewide charter school district has finally cleared the senate. Barring complications in the house, where the bill was introduced, Governor Mark Sanford should have it on his desk for signing tomorrow.

South Carolina's original charter law, passed in 1996, put authorizing authority in the hands of local districts, period. Not surprisingly, it has failed to create many new schools, since most districts hate charters. In rural Lee County, for example (where adult illiteracy exceeds 40 percent), the district for two years has refused to grant a charter to MLD Academy, a values-based school with a back-to-basics approach, despite an order by the circuit court to do so.

If the bill passes, the new statewide charter authorizer - the South Carolina Public Charter School District - would be housed in the state education agency, but overseen by an independent 11-member board.

"The appointed board will be pro-charter," David Church, executive director of the South Carolina Association of Public Charter Schools, tells Gadfly. The house and senate are still working out who will appoint the members, but Tom Davis, the governor's deputy chief of staff, shares Church's confidence.

The Center for Education Reform disagrees. It frets that the new authorizer is too close to the state education agency. Moreover, CER claims that new schools will be grossly underfunded. "The new school district... limits funding for charter schools to approximately 60 percent of monies currently allotted to other public charter schools," according to its press release.

Not so, says the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools." State chartered schools, explains its release, "will receive a package of state funding providing resources comparable to what current charters get."

Davis goes a step further. He points out that there are more than 100 different funding sources that charters in the Palmetto State ought to have access to now, but don't. Under existing law, that money flows to local districts, but sizable portions never wind up in charter bank accounts; instead, they are retained by and diverted to traditional public schools. Under the new law, those funds will flow directly to the South Carolina Public School Charter District and then directly to the district's charter schools. (No more than 2 percent of those funds will be retained by the district for expenses.)

"The governor will watch those dollars very carefully," Davis tells Gadfly. "He will make certain that all of the money intended for the charter schools ends up in the charter schools." 

Even if charters are funded at their current levels, however, there are still funding concerns. (See Charter School Funding: Inequity's Next Frontier.) "The next order of business," says President Nelson Smith of the National Alliance for Public Charter School in his press release, will be to "push state leaders to address the unconscionable gap in funding between charters and other public schools."

This may only be the beginning. Another bill pending before the house has reform advocates equally excited. House Bill 4489 would give students the opportunity to attend any public school in South Carolina, even those outside the district.

Says Church, "We've broken the dam on school choice" in our state.

State house watcher John Frank, a reporter for the Charleston Post and Courier, gives HB4489 a fighting chance. So, too, education editor Leroy Chapman of The State, South Carolina's largest paper. The bill would cap the number of students who could take advantage, so Davis isn't thrilled with it. But, he notes, it's a positive step.


Has South Carolina taken its playbook from Governor Jeb Bush of Florida, who recently penned a Wall Street Journal article (subscription required) giving his five rules of school reform? Possibly. Governor Sanford is certainly following Bush's first rule. "Say what you're going to do and then do what you said you would."

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