Academic Magnet High School recurring (copy) (copy)

South Carolina lawmakers could do away with a loophole in 2019 that has allowed dozens of Berkeley County families to send their children to Charleston County's prestigious Academic Magnet High and School of the Arts. File

Since 1962, an obscure loophole in South Carolina law has allowed children to cross county lines and attend school in any district where they own real estate with a tax assessed value of $300 or more.

In 2019, state legislators could close that loophole by writing it out of state law.

State Rep. Marvin Pendarvis, D-North Charleston, pre-filed House Bill 3159 on Dec. 18 to end the special treatment for property-owning children.

If passed, the bill would take effect in the 2019-20 school year. Under a grandfather clause included in Pendarvis' bill, any students who were using the loophole during 2018-19 could continue attending the same school in 2019-20.

Pendarvis said he became interested in closing the loophole after reading about it in The Post and Courier and talking with education leaders about its impact. He expressed concern the law created unequal opportunities for children from wealthier families.

"It was allowing parents to use that loophole to send their kids anywhere in the district or in a school across district lines," Pendarvis said.

Pendarvis, who was elected in 2017, said he was not aware of any other legislators who had tried to close the loophole. At least one other Charleston-area lawmaker, Democratic Rep. Robert L. Brown of Hollywood, said in 2018 that he thinks the loophole should be abolished.

The law was written in the midst of statewide resistance to school desegregation following the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision. It currently applies to the dozens of out-of-county families who have purchased property in Charleston County to establish eligibility for their children to attend the county's sought-after magnet schools, Academic Magnet and School of the Arts. Most of the families currently using the loophole hail from Berkeley County's 29492 ZIP code, which includes the wealthy enclave of Daniel Island.

In 2018, one downtown Charleston family successfully used the loophole to send their 5-year-old daughter to the sought-after and overcrowded Mount Pleasant Academy using a novel new interpretation of the law to establish attendance eligibility elsewhere within the same county.

The family gave their daughter 1 percent ownership of a small Mount Pleasant house via a trustee and then successfully sued the Charleston County School District to allow their daughter to attend kindergarten in the neighborhood where the house is located.

“This statute does not give residents the right to choose any school within the district they would like to attend,” school district legal counsel Natalie Ham wrote to the family in an email this August. “Imagine the mess that would cause for districts across the state. If that is your interpretation, I doubt that any judge would agree that was the legislative intent.”

On Sept. 7, Circuit Judge Jennifer McCoy ruled in the family's favor, ordering the school district to admit the child to Mount Pleasant Academy.

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