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It makes sense that teams should have roughly the same advantages if they compete with each other for athletic championships. Comparing academic performance among K-12 schools also can be difficult but there is a better way to measure success.

 AP/Richard Shiro

Imagine the Legislature passed a law that said USC can only recruit football players who are South Carolinians, but Clemson can still recruit from across the country.

If that doesn’t strike you as grotesquely unfair, then imagine the reverse.

That’s the situation that high school coaches at traditional public schools have always faced when they go up against private, magnet and charter schools.

Now, add in this twist: USC’s football players have to be in class from 8 a.m. until 3 p.m., and work in their training and practice after that, while Clemson students are in class from 7:30 until 11:30 every morning, and practice all afternoon.

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Cindi Ross Scoppe

That’s essentially the situation traditional public schools in the Lowcountry have faced since Oceanside Collegiate Academy opened three years ago in Mount Pleasant.

While some schools can offer students a long tradition of athletic excellence, Oceanside offers a curriculum that emphasizes athletics and allows students to spend half their day in class and the other half training and practicing.

What Oceanside can offer is important because, unlike traditional public schools — which have to make the best teams they can with students who live in their attendance zones — Oceanside is a statewide charter school, so it can accept students from anywhere in South Carolina.

I’m not at all invested in high school athletics, and I probably wouldn’t have read sportswriter Andrew Miller’s article on the battle between traditional and alternative schools about how the teams should be categorized for state championships if it weren’t for the parallels to something that’s been nagging at me about charter, magnet and public-private partnership schools.

The problem isn’t with the existence of alternative forms of public schools, any more than the athletic problem is with the existence of Oceanside and other football academies. Done right, alternative schools can increase parental involvement, function as laboratories of innovation and better tailor curricula to students’ individual interests and learning styles.

The problem is with how we compare them to traditional schools.

When Charleston County’s Academic Magnet High School and Montessori Community School produce great test scores, most people assume that’s because they have great teachers and great ideas about how to educate students, and there’s some truth to that. (It’s not true that charter, magnet and partnership schools are inherently superior to traditional schools, as we know from a string of failing charters.)

But there’s an even bigger component to that success: the students themselves.

One of the most important predictors of student success is parental involvement. And by definition, parents who take the time to get their kids enrolled in alternative schools and get them to and from those schools are extremely involved in their children’s education.

Now, there are a lot of good, involved parents who prefer to keep their children in their neighborhood schools, but there also are a lot of parents who keep their kids in traditional schools because they don’t care enough about education to worry about where their kids go to school — or whether they even go to school.

That means the proportion of highly involved parents at traditional schools is lower than at alternative schools.

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So alternative schools ought to consistently outperform traditional public schools, because their students start with such a huge advantage. Even if you control for economic differences. Even if you control for the extra money that some alternative schools receive. Even if you moved the principals, teachers and curricula from the alternative schools into traditional schools.

So should we not try to compare traditional and alternative schools? Well, maybe that’s the answer for football. But not for academics. Not only is there a way we can make a valid comparison, but doing so will tell us a lot more than we know now.

Raw test scores are important, and we have to improve them across the board. But the way to compare students who start at very different places is to compare how much progress they make. It’s great that someone who starts the year as an A student ends the year as an A student. It’s much more impressive when someone who starts the year as a D student finishes it as a B student.

Academic Magnet High School in North Charleston has racked up a series of impressive honors since its inception in 1988. It consistently ranks as one of the best or the best in the state, and it’s not unaccustomed to landing among the top high schools nationally.

We already measure those changes in elementary and middle schools, and it’s available on the state’s annual school report cards, but those aren’t the numbers we focus on.

If we did — if we compared how much students improve — we’d find that some charter, magnet and partnership schools are in fact producing more annual improvement than some regular schools, and vice versa. More importantly, we’d discover which alternative and traditional schools really are doing a great job … and which ones are actually doing an awful job.

Cindi Ross Scoppe is an editorial writer for The Post and Courier. Contact her at or follow her on Facebook or Twitter @cindiscoppe.

Follow Cindi Ross Scoppe on Twitter or Facebook @cindiscoppe.