Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Rise Of The Charter Schools: S.C. Has A First

The State of South Carolina is preparing to enact legislation that will establish the first in the nation statewide charter school district:
Amid a cluster of brown buildings at Greenville Technical College, fresh-faced students go about their normal school day.

Only some — the ones wearing the blue tops and khaki pants — aren’t college students. They attend Greenville Technical Charter High, a public charter school.

For $1 a year, the high school leases space from the college. It’s a sweetheart deal for both: The high school gets good facilities at an unbeatable price; the college typically scoops up more than half of the high school’s graduates, who arrive ready to take on such specialties as computer programming and engineering.

Principal W. Fred Crawford would like more charter schools like his in South Carolina. But he doubts whether legislation that could be approved this week by the General Assembly will create more charters and fears it could lead to fewer.

S.C. lawmakers are on the verge of establishing a first-in-the-nation statewide charter school district. This week, the House, which approved a similar bill last year, could decide to accept a Senate version or seek to modify it in a conference committee.

However, critics of the bill, including charter school advocates like Crawford, say it is flawed.

For instance, it includes no money for charter school facilities, for example, widely cited as the top impediment to starting a new charter school.

“I don’t think it’s healthy for the state,” Crawford said.

Supporters of the bill see a statewide district as a major accomplishment. They say the new district would be more determined than local districts to approve schools, and get federal and private money for charters, which can offer alternative curricula and teaching methods.

Plus, they say more people will look to start charter schools if they believe there is an advocate in the form of a statewide district.

Charter schools are public schools, not home-based or affiliated with a religion, that are authorized by local school districts to offer new and creative methods of educating students.

“It’s an important moment for South Carolina and for the charter movement nationally,” said Nelson Smith, president of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

National advocates and Gov. Mark Sanford have cheered the progress and likely passage of a bill they think will lead to more charters. The governor has made passage a high priority.

Last year, he was rebuffed in an effort to have the state offer parents tax credits for private school tuition. A scaled-down version of that bill has been reintroduced this year, and the governor sees both bills as opportunities to offer dissatisfied parents choices beyond traditional public school.

Sanford greeted Senate passage of the charter school bill with enthusiasm. But as it moves to the House, questions remain about just how effective the legislation would be in clearing the path for more charters.

Costs vary widely across the state, but access to an existing facility or getting money to build one is life-or-death for charters.

In Graniteville, for example, Midland Valley Preparatory charter school operates out of a converted daycare facility. Principal Lillian Knight Thomas wants a new facility, but the cost is prohibitive — between $1.7 million and $3.2 million.

The Aiken County School District, like most public systems, does not pay for charter facilities.

Midland Valley would have to pay for a new building out of its per-pupil funding. Without district backing, getting a loan for the school would be difficult, if not impossible, Thomas said.

Along with a lack of dollars for facilities, the legislation does not include money for transportation or lunch programs. In the vast majority of cases, districts do not provide those services for charters in their jurisdiction.

How much the state spends on a new statewide district will depend on how many children enroll in its schools.

About 6,000 students are expected to attend charter schools in South Carolina during the 2006-07 school year.
There's more in the whole piece.

I'm not surprised that Governor Mark Sanford is supporting private school tax credits. As is the case with a large number of lawmakers, he sends his own children to an exclusive private school.

We've said it before, and we'll say it again: We'll have better public schools when our public policy makers send their own children to them and stop exempting themselves from the consequences of the legislation that they impose on the Rest of Us.
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