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State board stops exodus of virtual charter schools to new authorizer

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Oceanside Collegiate School (copy)

Oceanside Collegiate Academy algebra teacher Jenny Cassell teaches Thursday, November 3, 2016. The S.C. Public Charter School District voted to allow Oceanside to transfer to a new charter authorizer at Erskine College Thursday, but it denied several other schools' applications. File/Brad Nettles/Staff

A statewide school board voted Thursday to stop an exodus of online charter schools that sought to continue receiving state tax funding while moving to the auspices of a private Christian liberal arts college.

Nine public charter schools, including three virtual schools, had applied to transfer out of the S.C. Public Charter School District and into the newly formed Charter Institute at Erskine College. The statewide district's board voted to allow five schools to make the jump: Gray Collegiate Academy in West Columbia, Oceanside Collegiate Academy in McClellanville, Coastal Leadership Academy in Myrtle Beach, Royal Live Oaks Academy Charter School in Hardeeville and Mevers School of Excellence in Goose Creek.

The board denied transfer requests by three virtual schools — Cyber Academy of South Carolina, S.C. Virtual Charter School and Odyssey Online Learning — as well as Midlands STEM Institute in Winnsboro.

"The people at Erskine are good people, I know a lot of them, (but) chartering and being an authorizer is a lot to learn," said Don McLaurin, chairman of the S.C. Public Charter School District Board of Trustees, during the transfer hearings in Columbia. "I’m just not sure in their first year it’s good for us to release schools that are poor-performing to a group that’s still getting its feet on the ground."

Representatives from several of the schools said they would like to use Erskine's school of education for professional development.

"The opportunity for student teachers, professional development and continuing the promise to parents are the main reasons we’re highlighting," a representative from Oceanside said.

The Mevers School, which just opened this fall in Berkeley County and has a contract with Charter Schools USA, said it wanted to join the same sponsor as fellow CSUSA school Cane Bay Preparatory Academy. After the state charter district rejected Cane Bay's application in April, Erskine accepted it as the institute's first new school in November.

Another common complaint among the schools has been that the state district provides inadequate support to schools and unfairly assesses them according to test scores.

The Public Charter School District, created in 2006 by an act of the Legislature, used to be the only statewide entity authorizing charter schools. Its board has the authority to approve or revoke charters for new public schools around the state.

This spring, after ramping up enforcement of test-based accountability measures, the district notified several schools, including the online schools, that they were in breach of their charters and risked losing access to public funds. South Carolina's virtual schools have cost taxpayers more than $350 million since 2007 and have produced poor academic results, including some of the highest dropout rates in the state.

In July, tiny Erskine College in Due West announced it was creating the Charter Institute at Erskine, operating under a state law that allows many private colleges to act as a charter authorizers.

The first two schools to express an interest were Cyber Academy and S.C. Virtual. Both schools have management contracts with K12 Inc., a publicly traded charter management company, but they said their individual charter boards acted independently.

K12 stands to lose money if the schools lose their charter. In the 2015-16 fiscal year alone, S.C. Virtual received $24 million in taxpayer money, of which about $13 million went to K12 Inc.

Erskine College, which has operated with multimillion-dollar budget deficits in recent years, stands to make money by authorizing charter schools. Under state law, authorizers receive a 2 percent cut of state funds to the schools they approve.

Most of the Public Charter School District's decisions Thursday were unanimous or near-unanimous. One board member, Beth Purcell, voted to let all nine schools leave for Erskine.

"All of our virtual schools serve a virtual tough demographic. I appreciate and applaud your passion for serving these students who would otherwise not be served," Purcell said during a hearing for Odyssey Online.

Purcell is the newest member of the board, appointed in the fall by S.C. Senate Pro Tem Hugh Leatherman. She previously worked as president of publicschooloptions.org, a Washington D.C.-based organization that advocates for the expansion of charter schools, including virtual schools.

Purcell and Leatherman did not respond to interview requests Thursday.

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

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