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56-year-old loophole lets students from another county into Charleston's magnet schools

housing daniel island Apr2017..jpg (copy)

Most of the 40 non-resident students who attended Charleston County's elite public magnet schools in the 2017-18 school year hailed from a ZIP Code that includes Daniel Island, one of the wealthiest areas in South Carolina. Daniel Island is in Berkeley County, meaning that its residents would not normally have access to Charleston County public schools. File/Wade Spees/Staff

Dozens of families in one of South Carolina's wealthiest enclaves are using a little-known legal loophole to send their children across county lines to Charleston County's elite public magnet schools.

An obscure 1962 South Carolina law and a 2012 state Supreme Court decision allow a student to attend school in any district as long as the student — not his or her parents — owns property in the attendance zone. The property must have a tax assessed value of $300 or more.

While the law applies statewide, the Charleston County School District is apparently applying it more often than most districts.

The Charleston County School District is exercising its authority under another state law to charge tuition for those students. The rate went up to $6,812 this year, based on the overhead cost per pupil at a school. 

In the case of Academic Magnet High and School of the Arts — two of the district's most sought-after schools — 40 students residing outside Charleston County used the $300 property law to attend them during the 2017-18 school year, according to the district's response to a Freedom of Information Act request.

Students from outside the county still had to qualify for the magnet schools through the same merit-based application process as their non-property-owning peers.

The 40 non-resident students accounted for about 2 percent of the combined student population at Academic Magnet High and Charleston County School of the Arts, which share a joint campus in North Charleston. The figure has risen from 24 in 2016-17 and seven in 2011.

The majority of the students this year, 34, came from the ZIP code 29492, which includes the Berkeley County communities of Daniel Island and Cainhoy. Half the households in the ZIP code have incomes above $100,489, according to census estimates. Statewide, median household income — the point where half have more and half have less — is $46,898.

The other six students came from Dorchester County.

An exclusive choice

The 1962 law allows a form of school choice that is only available to families with the knowledge and disposable income to use it. For a child attending grades 6-12 at School of the Arts, the total cost of tuition at the current rate comes out to $47,684 — plus the price of property.

With competition for seats in public magnet schools getting fiercer by the year, some Charleston County parents are crying foul as available slots go to children outside the county.

Nerina Rickborn of Mount Pleasant, whose daughter ended up on a wait list at Academic Magnet, said her daughter had a grade point average above 98 in eighth grade and placed in the 99th percentile on the MAP math test, but she still did not get in.

"She’s wanted to go there forever. She was ticked off, like 'Seriously? Look at my grades,'" Rickborn said.

Rickborn said she understood why parents were using the loophole, but she questioned the fairness of the law.

"I get why they want their kid to go to the best school, but you kind of made that decision when you moved to Daniel Island," she said.

Backdrop of integration

The law in question, S.C. Code of Laws Section 59-63-30(c), arose when state political leaders were digging in their heels against federal mandates to provide equal educational opportunities to African-American students.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1954 in  Brown v. Board of Education, a case that traced its roots to the 1950 South Carolina-based case Briggs v. Elliott, that public school segregation was illegal. But South Carolina's General Assembly and local school leaders resisted the ruling for nine years, and Charleston County schools were not integrated until 1963, when 15-year-old Millicent Brown entered the formerly all-white Rivers High School.

A Feb. 1, 1962, Associated Press report on the student property ownership bill noted that "questions of religious and racial segregation" arose during debate in the S.C. House of Representatives. The report said the bill would permit school districts to charge tuition to existing students whose parents lived out of state and did not pay South Carolina taxes.

Opponents of the bill intimated that African-Americans would be the main group forced to pay tuition.

According to the terse notes in that year's House Journal, Rep. Clyde Eltzroth of Hampton County denied a claim by Rep. John Hart of Union County that the bill was "aimed at a particular race." The law passed in 1962, with slight modifications made in 1964.

By 2010, some families had found a different application for the law than the one described in those early debates.

Gayla McSwain, an attorney from Goose Creek, said she does not recall how she came across the law. But when her daughter expressed an interest in Academic Magnet, which was rated among the best public high schools in the country at that time, she used the law to send her there without moving out of Berkeley County.

Charleston County property records show that her daughter purchased a vacant lot in North Charleston's Accabee neighborhood for $4,000 on Aug. 9, 2010. It remains undeveloped today.

McSwain filed an injunction that allowed her daughter to attend without paying tuition and argued in a subsequent lawsuit that her daughter should be allowed to attend despite living outside the county. The S.C. Supreme Court ultimately ruled in her favor in a 3-2 decision in December 2012.

In an email to The Post and Courier at the time, McSwain said the court decision would allow children to attend the school of their choice regardless of their socioeconomic status.

In 2013, the Charleston County School District began charging tuition for families who used the property loophole.

Earlier this year, Academic Magnet received 543 applications for 161 available seats, while the School of the Arts received 1,194 applications for 172 seats.

McSwain said the county should respond by increasing the supply rather than restricting potential applicants.

"Why can't another Academic Magnet High School, another School of the Arts, be created? You have such a long waiting list. Perhaps that should be looked at," McSwain said.

Revisiting the law

Writing the majority opinion in McSwain's case, Chief Justice Jean Toal said she was "not unsympathetic" to the school board's argument that out-of-county students would displace qualified in-county students. But the language of the law was "unambiguous," she noted.

"If this interpretation is contrary to legislative intent, or if it does not promote the furtherance of education, we leave it to the Legislature to amend the statute," Toal wrote.

The Legislature has made no changes to the law since 1964.

Rep. Robert L. Brown, D-Hollywood, serves as second vice chairman of the House Education and Public Works Committee. He said he was not previously familiar with the law. Upon reviewing it this week, he called it "a very interesting loophole that I think should be abolished." He said he would consider revisiting the law next year, if re-elected.

Today, as in 1962, racial integration is a far-off goal for Charleston County schools, where a pattern of de facto segregation underlies a wide performance gap between white and minority students.

Academic Magnet in particular has gone from a diverse school on the campus of Burke High in the 1990s to a more homogeneous school today, with white students occupying 81 percent of the seats. The school's most recent headcount showed it had 664 students, 23 of whom were African-Americans, or 3.5 percent. Only East Cooper Montessori Charter (3.3 percent) and Sullivan's Island Elementary (0 percent) had fewer black students.

The school district has tried to boost minority enrollment at Academic Magnet, including a new policy that offers admission to the top two graduates of each middle school in the county.

The property loophole is not helping the matter. Of the 40 out-of-county students attending the two schools this year under the state law, 34 were white, four were Asian, one was American Indian or Alaska Native, and one was black, according to the district.

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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.

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