For far too long, South Carolina’s students’ scores on standardized tests have been among the country’s lowest.
Public schools have struggled to tweak their programs and try new curricula with limited academic success.
But there is one area where the state has taken bold steps to improve education: charter schools.
Last year, the Legislature, recognizing the many potential benefits of that modern educational innovation, strengthened its charter school law. And this year, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, a nonprofit advocacy group, ranks that law the 12th best of the 43 states with charter school laws.
A law is just that. It doesn’t ensure that charter schools will be successful. But it takes a strong law to pave the way for charter schools to get established and to prove themselves.
One good example of a charter school success is the Charleston Charter School for Math & Science. Its founders faced one obstacle after another — some of them created by the Charleston County School District — but the inner-city school has a commendable track record so far. Its student population is racially diverse, and its students’ academic performance has been notable.
A charter school is a public school governed by its own board as relates to decisions about funding, policy and curriculum. Charter schools offer parents alternatives to their neighborhood schools or district magnet schools — and in the process foster more parental involvement in education. Children learn differently, and it makes good sense for them to attend schools that suit their individual learning styles.
Some schools are awarded charters by the district, some through a statewide charter school district. The school’s charter can be taken away if it fails to be fiscally and academically sound,
There are 55 charter schools in the state, with almost 24,000 students.
South Carolina’s initial charter school law was enacted in 1996. Last year’s changes open more doors. They permit single-gender charter schools; allow charter school students to participate in extracurricular activities at their neighborhood schools if those activities aren’t offered at their charter schools; and make it possible for charter schools to be associated with colleges.
The next issue for the Legislature to tackle is providing charter schools with money for their facilities, the cost of which can be daunting to people considering new charter schools. It is impossible to measure the real success of charter schools, and to encourage new charter schools, if they are overwhelmed by high facility costs.
A few weeks ago, South Carolina’s statewide charter school district requested an additional $12 million just to keep up with growing student population. Schools chartered by a county school board receive local property tax money. Schools in the statewide district rely on money from the state, and the Legislature should fund them adequately.
As in any new endeavor, the charter school movement will experience some failures along with its successes. The statewide charter school district scored a D on its report card. Not surprisingly, charter virtual schools, whose students often have dropped out of traditional schools, have a high dropout rate. One school’s charter was revoked amid allegations of fraudulent diplomas and financial discrepancies. Six are on probation.
But the state also has traditional schools that are failing, and they have had much longer to address their weaknesses than charter schools have had.
The Legislature’s growing support for charter schools is commendable. Public education underpins the state’s economy, culture and quality of life.
Charter schools are no longer on the fringe. They deserve the state’s backing.