South Carolina charter school laws rise to No. 10 in national rankings

South Carolina’s laws are becoming increasingly supportive of charter schools compared with the rest of the country, according a new national report.

The Palmetto State rose six spots to No. 10 out of 43 states for the quality of its laws, mostly because of new state laws that streamlined the charter application process and required additional transparency from charter schools, according to a report released Tuesday by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. Eight states don’t have charter school laws.

“This builds on a number of changes South Carolina has made over the last number of years to strengthen charter laws,” said Todd Ziebarth, senior vice president of state advocacy and support for the alliance. “It’s increasingly a supportive environment.”

The report ranks each state’s charter school laws on 20 components, including quality and accountability, equitable access to funding and facilities, and no caps on charter schools’ growth. The rankings were released during National School Choice Week, which started Sunday. The week will feature more than 11,000 events across all 50 states, including 149 in South Carolina. Gov. Nikki Haley participated in a rally for school choice Tuesday in Columbia.

The number of charter schools in South Carolina continues to grow, rising from 59 last school year to 66 this year. Charleston County is home to 11 charter schools with another approved to open next school year. There are no charter schools in Berkeley or Dorchester counties. About 26,000 students are served by charter schools statewide. The state’s total public school enrollment is more than 700,000 students.

Mary Carmichael, executive director of the Public Charter School Alliance of South Carolina, said new laws enacted over the past year have helped streamline the approval process for charter schools, allowing organizations to seek charters from more than one entity at the same time. The laws have also “cleaned up” the process to close schools that are not performing, Carmichael said.

“We have worked hard to make sure we can be a leader in charter school laws and to make sure charter schools have that accountability in exchange for autonomy,” Carmichael said.

The report identified areas where the state could improve its charter school laws further, including providing equitable per-pupil funding as well as better access to capital funding for facilities, all things Carmichael agreed with.

But supporting charter schools is a balancing act. Bernadette Hampton, president of the S.C. Education Association, said charter school funding should not “disproportionately divert” resources from traditional public schools and private schools should not be allowed to convert to public charter schools.

Charter schools, however, can be a place for innovation, Hampton said.

“We see much potential for public charter schools ... to develop new and creative teaching methods that can be replicated in traditional public schools for the benefit of all students,” she said. “That’s always a good thing.”