Virtual school

Malachi Sewell, 6, works through a school lesson in his school room at home with his mother Debra Sewell in 2010. The Sewells are among thousands of South Carolina families who have turned to online charter schools during the last decade. File/Grace Beahm/Staff

A private Christian college in Due West could become the gatekeeper for millions of state taxpayer dollars to fund online charter schools.

Erskine College has created a college sponsorship route for charter schools, opening a door for at least two schools that have expressed an interest in leaving the district that currently oversees them.

Aside from a brief foray by South Carolina State University, the college sponsorship route for charter schools has barely been tested in South Carolina — particularly not at a college as small as Erskine, which enrolls about 600 undergraduate students.

Two of the first schools to express an interest in the new public charter school sponsor, the Charter Institute at Erskine College, are the S.C. Virtual Charter School and Cyber Academy of South Carolina. The two schools enrolled more than 4,000 students combined in kindergarten through 12th grade last school year.

Both schools are currently sponsored via the S.C. Public Charter School District, which recently put them on notice that they were breaching their charters due to poor academic performance.

And both schools have contracts with Virginia-based K12 Inc., a publicly traded company providing charter school curricula and technology. School leaders say they acted independently.

"In speaking with Erskine, they agree that there should be some kind of collaboration between the school and the authorizer on how to hold the charter itself accountable," said David Crook, head of school at Cyber Academy.

The midsummer news comes amid renewed scrutiny of virtual schools by education researchers and the state public charter school district, which recently revoked the charter of the virtual S.C. Calvert Academy. Since the state began allowing virtual charter school companies to receive public funds and accept students in 2007, the online schools have cost taxpayers more than $350 million and produced dismal academic results, with about half of students dropping out of the schools within a year.

Across the U.S., the National Association of Charter School Authorizers has been sounding the alarm about a trend it calls "authorizer shopping," which it calls "a growing threat to overall charter school quality."

"Authorizer shopping happens when a charter school chooses an initial authorizer or changes authorizers specifically to avoid accountability," the group said in a 2016 report. "A low-performing school may shop for a new authorizer to avoid closure, or reopen under a new authorizer after closure."

Cherry Daniel, head of the S.C. Virtual Charter School, said that's not what she is doing by reaching out to Erskine. Although Erskine can set up its own accountability system for schools, any schools it sponsors would be subject to some oversight by the S.C. Department of Education.

"I’ve been an educator 35-plus years in South Carolina. I embrace accountability," Daniel said. "Please don’t think that I’m jumping because we feel like we’re being rejected. We just want more advocacy and more support. They have a different view, they have a much different philosophy than a lot of schools that are in that district."

Defenders of online charter schools, including U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, say virtual schools provide flexibility and a lifeline for students who are home-bound or bullied. And leaders of the two schools say they work with transient student populations, making some measures such as a four-year graduation rate unhelpful measures of success.

It remains unclear whether funds would transfer with the schools if they make the jump from the S.C. Public Charter School District to Erskine. Under a budget proviso, the statewide district is specifically allotted $1,900 per pupil enrolled in virtual schools. The college says it will take a 2 percent cut of the gross funds that it sends to any qualifying schools.

"The district is currently evaluating the requests, which require the consent of the district’s Board of Trustees," said Taylor Fulcher, a spokesperson for the Public Charter School District.

The Charter Institute at Erskine includes a few familiar faces in the world of South Carolina charter schools. Its interim director is Cameron Runyan, a former financial adviser and Columbia city councilman. Runyan was a member of a charter committee that sought Public Charter School District sponsorship for the creation of Palmetto Classical Charter School in Varnville this spring.

"I volunteered to help a charter group out of Hampton County (where I grew up) with their charter effort," Runyan said in an email.

The statewide district's board voted not to approve that application on May 11. In late May, Erskine registered as a charter school sponsor with the state.

The Charter Institute was created by a vote of the Erskine College Board of Trustees and did not require outside approval. Its five-member board includes Stu Rodman of Hilton Head, a Beaufort County Council member who donated to Runyan's 2015 City Council campaign and sat on the Palmetto Classical planning committee alongside Runyan.

When asked what the Charter Institute at Erskine would do to turn around academic performance at the two virtual schools, Runyan wrote, "Erskine will independently evaluate all the schools it may sponsor and looks forward to working with all such schools, within the context of their mission and charter, to provide the best education possible to all of the students in those schools."

S.C. Department of Education spokesman Ryan Brown said representatives from several other colleges, including Benedict and Allen, attended the agency's recent training session for charter sponsors. So far only Erskine has made the move to become a charter sponsor.

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Reach Paul Bowers at 843-937-5546. Follow him on Twitter @paul_bowers.

Paul Bowers is an education reporter and father of three living in North Charleston. He previously worked at the Charleston City Paper, where he was twice named South Carolina Journalist of the Year in the weekly category.