Charter schools, old and new, still a district sore point
In terms of S.C. charter school trailblazers, James Island Charter High School has been at the forefront. The first secondary school in the state to convert to a charter, it had to pass some tough initial tests, including two-thirds votes of both faculty and parents. Now in its fifth year, why is its charter status still an issue with some school board members?
Money lost to non-charter schools has been at the root of many complaints about charters generally and James Island specifically. Charter schools are public schools, and state law requires that they be given the average per-pupil allocation.
Money was a prime reason for the Charleston County School Board's recent decision to deny charter status to Drayton Hall Elementary. The majority contended that the money-strapped district can't afford to lose an estimated $2 million. Charter proponents counter that if the board doesn't like the finance portion of the charter law, it should take its argument to Columbia.
James Island Charter High was made an issue again during the Drayton Hall debate by the board's vice chair, Gregg Meyers. While he says it isn't his prime concern, the flash point for a number of district officials has been James Island's hefty rainy-day account that now stands at $1.9 million, with a budget of some $15 million.
The weather literally was one of the reasons the James Island Charter brain trust decided to be very fiscally conservative. Former School Board chairman Robert New, a key James Island Charter organizer, says a substantial reserve was needed to protect the school. If there is hurricane damage, for example, the charter school is responsible for repairs. That reality led to the decision to initially spend only what it previously had received and bank the difference. But when the cash reserve grew to around $4 million, charter officials began putting money in non-recurring, curriculum-related expenditures. For example, principal Robert Bohnstengel cites extensive specialized tutoring and end-of-course study programs.
But Meyers has zeroed in on the school's failure on the Adequate Yearly Progress test under the federal No Child Left Behind law. While he acknowledges that most district schools are in the same boat, he contends that a charter school with a history of excellence and cash in the bank should be out front.
Bohnstengel says the school is making substantial progress on the test, which requires success within each subset of students, such as those who require special services. This year, he said, the school missed only one of its 17 objectives — progress with English language arts for subsidized-meal students. The school, he said, will put the same intense tutoring effort in that area as it did successfully with math the previous year. He points out that Wando High — one of the district's best — also has failed to meet the AYP for the past three years.
The school's SAT scores are high and the upcoming state report card is expected to give the school an "excellent" rating, with a "good" grade on improvements. Meyers says his prime complaint isn't with the James Island school's officials but with his own colleagues for failing to monitor the charter. Actually, the board came close to rejecting the charter's renewal on a 4-4 vote earlier this year despite, Bohnstengel notes, a positive recommendation from key district officials and a glowing report by an external review team that included three former superintendents from around the state.
Bohnstengel says the charter provides extensive data to both the district and the state and has gone further than the law requires. If more is requested, he said, he'll provide it. Meyers doesn't question that the information is available but contends that the board needs to assess what is and isn't working at charters. He's encouraged that during a recent meeting, six members did agree to start getting charter results.
Is there reason to believe that before the board knows it, there will be more charters than traditional public schools in the district? Robert New doesn't think so, primarily because some principals and staff simply don't want to take on that responsibility. But when all conditions are right, he contends, charter schools "empower a local community to run their own schools" and can be "a tremendous benefit to public education."
While charters continue to have detractors, they may have gained a new friend in Washington. President-elect Barack Obama's education-secretary nominee, Chicago public schools head Arne Duncan, is viewed as a charter proponent. According to The Economist, 67 of the 75 new schools created in Chicago are charters.