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Editorial: The tricky balance of funding not-quite-public, not-quite-private charter schools

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PALM Charter High School (copy)

Charter schools were supposed to be laboratories of innovation, like PALM Charter High School in Myrtle Beach, which emphasizes the skills needed to work in the motorsports industry. Lack of local tax funding means they have to operate more like businesses or nonprofits. Provided/PALM Charter High School

News that South Carolina’s charter schools are double-dipping in federal COVID-19 relief  funding feels more than a little wrong, particularly coming just a week after Gov. Henry McMaster started throwing public money at private schools.

As The Post and Courier’s Seanna Adcox reports, charter schools were among the 7,600 businesses and nonprofits in South Carolina that received at least $5.7 billion in forgivable loans through the federal Paycheck Protection Program for businesses and nonprofits. Their share was somewhere between $12.3 million and $28.3 million.

That was on top of the $4.8 million that charter schools received as public schools through the state’s $195 million direct education appropriation under the CARES Act. (The Legislature appropriated another $223 million in federal COVID relief funding for all the public schools, including charter schools.)

Public education supporters are understandably upset about the extra funding for charters, since regular public schools have never been adequately funded by our state and are under increasing pressure to find a way (and the money) to offer in-person classes even as coronavirus infection rates remain disturbingly high.

And it absolutely would be wrong for the Legislature to provide more money to charter schools than to regular public schools.

The Legislature appropriately has adopted a model that provides some public funding for charter schools but less than it provides for regular public schools — currently a little more than a quarter less per student. That balances the state’s desire to encourage the greater parental and community involvement and experimentation that independent charter schools promise with the fact that, since most aren’t controlled by the local school districts, charters can open in areas where taxpayers have already spent money to build and operate a regular public school that is capable of accommodating all the students. (Private schools, by contrast, deserve no public funding, because they operate beyond even indirect control of government and don’t have to meet any of the testing or reporting standards that regular public and charter schools do.)

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But while providing more funding for regular public schools than for charter schools makes good sense as education policy, the Congress had other goals in mind when it passed the CARES Act in March: namely, keeping employers afloat in order to keep people employed.

Although there clearly have been problems with accountability and transparency and even who’s allowed to participate in the forgivable-loan program, it wasn’t unreasonable for the Congress to appropriate more money for businesses and nonprofits than for public schools: Regular public schools aren’t having to lay off teachers and other employees in order to pay their bills in the middle of a pandemic, at least not in South Carolina. Charter schools, like other businesses and nonprofits, have bills that state government doesn’t pay, and they have the legal authority to lay off employees in order to pay rent, utilities and other bills.

And it certainly wasn’t inappropriate for charter schools to apply for the money to cover their expenses as businesses and nonprofits, while also receiving funding as state educational entities.

Of course, it also wouldn’t be inappropriate for state legislators to keep that extra help in mind this fall as they decide how to allocate the state’s limited tax revenue to regular public schools, charter schools and the rest of state government.

And the rest of us should keep in mind that the most egregious problem with the way federal coronavirus funding is being distributed in our state has little to do with the Congress, less to do with our Legislature and everything to do with our governor, who made the decision to spend $32 million to pay parents to send their children to private schools instead of public schools.

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