Parents are virtually beating the doors down to get their kids into the poorest school district in America.

And it's right here in the Palmetto State.

The South Carolina Public Charter School District, which gets no local funding, spends about $3,500 per student -- less than half the median district funding level in the state, and, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, the lowest of any district in the nation that has more than one school.

Yet demand for its school programs has continued to grow ever since the charter school district opened its first schools two years ago. The district includes virtual, or computer-based, schools as well as brick- and-mortar schools.

"Quickly, I think parents saw that this is a way to deliver the content in a way that would serve their kids," said Jonathan Butcher, director of accountability for the district.

The first year, the district had about 2,500 students. By the middle of the second year, it had 6,000, including about 400 in two traditional brick-and-mortar schools.

This year, more than 7,000 are expected, and the figure would be larger were it not for the money crunch, he said.

Students from every county in the state are enrolled in virtual charter schools, including 408 from Greenville, 306 from Pickens and 66 from Anderson 1, according to district figures.

But the budget cuts of the past two years, which have made life difficult for the traditional school districts, have put the online charter schools on a course toward extinction, according to district Superintendent Wayne Brazell, former superintendent of Laurens County District 56.

"We're operating under unbelievable financial constraints," he said. "The way the charter schools are funded in South Carolina, this is not a sustainable condition."

Hampering efficiency

The funding formula is holding back growth of a much more economically efficient way of delivering education statewide than the traditional school method, virtual school principals said.

"We were going to go to 2,500 this year," said Darrell Johnson, principal of Provost Academy. "That was our goal. But with the economic crisis that education's facing, we're going to remain at 1,500."

The school planned to reduce the number of people hired to grade students' work and turn more of that responsibility over to teachers to help offset the 9 percent budget cut from last year, he said.

Like the other three virtual schools in the district, Provost is linked to a private educational company that acts as a vendor for its curriculum and materials.

"If we had not been a partner with Edison Learning this year we would have not made it financially with the cuts that came through," Johnson said.

Allison Reaves, principal of South Carolina Connections Academy, which has 2,222 students enrolled so far this year, said the budget cuts have made it difficult for the school to administer the tests that are required for all public school students in the state.

"We can only survive for so long," she said.

Funding formula

Traditional school districts derive about 45 percent of their funding from local taxes, with another 45 percent coming from state sources and 10 percent from the federal government.

The charter school district gets state and federal money only, with an additional $700 per student from the state being the only offset to the loss of a local tax base, Brazell said.

The district needs about $6,000 per student to survive, he said - still a bargain compared to traditional schools because of the lack of need to maintain facilities and provide transportation and such things as athletic programs.

Efforts to change the formula to put the charter school district on a more equitable footing have failed in the Legislature every year since the district was created, but another push will be made next year, he said.

Academic achievement

Academic performance won't necessarily be a selling point in the effort for more funding, although Brazell says the schools haven't been operating long enough to gain momentum that would show their effectiveness.

Even while being the lowest- funded district in the nation, the charter schools won't be allowed to let their academics drag, Brazell said. It will mean the death sentence to charter schools that don't live up to their mission. Unlike other public schools, if a charter school fails, it gets shut down.

Charter schools operate independently and are free from many state rules that apply to other public schools, but they exist only so long as they demonstrate their methods are working.

The 2009-10 school report cards won't be issued until November, but the 2008-09 report shows that 35 percent of middle school students in the South Carolina Virtual Charter School scored Exemplary in English language arts on the Palmetto Assessment of State Standards, compared to 29 percent statewide.

At South Carolina Connections Academy, 40 percent of elementary students scored Exemplary in that subject compared to 29 percent statewide.

But none of the charter district schools made Adequate Yearly Progress under the No Child Left Behind guidelines, which require student groups of all demographic backgrounds and handicaps to meet the standards.