School choice for Charleston
The Charleston County School District, 100 miles long with urban, suburban and rural schools, is hugely diverse. No single kind of school will meet the varying needs of students. Superintendent Nancy McGinley wants to provide more choices close to home for all students, and that is a good idea.
The plan is still in its infancy, and specifics are yet too sparse to allow for any decisions. In general, it would divide the district into four zones and would ensure that students in each zone have several school options from which to choose -- art-infused schools, Montessori schools, single-gender schools, career academies and schools emphasizing math and science.
Instead of transporting students across the county for those options, the district would have more opportunities close to home. Students would face less intimidating moves to new schools.
Experience tells us that choices can result in improved performance for students and for schools. Dr. McGinley's next step is to pin down details on which schools, for example, would be arts-infused and which would be career academies. Meanwhile, staff members will be assessing the district's properties to determine their condition and to make recommendations about a building program.
The biggest challenge is likely to be funding. The board was briefed on three financing options. None is without pain to taxpayers.
One would use the district's 8 percent debt capacity for the next five years. The second would be based on a bond referendum. Both would raise property taxes. The third would require a one-cent sales tax increase authorized by a countywide referendum.
It's too early to determine if the zoned school plan is advisable and, if so, affordable. It is important that the staff and school board, particularly in these difficult economic times, keep taxpayers as well as students in mind as they weigh proposals. But the notion of broader school choice for is worth examination.
The district has had numerous successes with alternative schools, including those featuring the arts, higher-level academics and vocational training.
There also has been a positive public response to citizen-driven alternatives to traditional schools, such as the new Math and Science Charter School. Further exploration to provide more choice is warranted.