Charter Schools Information
STARTING CHARTER SCHOOLS
Legislation aims to simplify opening of charter schools
Senate to begin debate on statewide public charter school district
BY YVONNE M. WENGER
The Post and Courier
COLUMBIA - Orange Grove Elementary School will teach its students a foreign language and lower its classroom sizes when it becomes a charter school in July.
Charter status will put parents and the community in control of the West Ashley school, designing the opportunities for its students, Principal Larry DiCenzo said.
"The only thing that will stop us is our own creativity," he said. "We offer a good, solid education for our kids, and their parents are in control of what it looks like."
When the elementary school officially converts, it will be one of about 30 charter schools in the Palmetto State. But there could be many more on the way.
The state Senate could begin debate as early as today on legislation that would create a statewide public charter school district. An ongoing filibuster concerning an unrelated bill could stall it, though.
The legislation, which passed the House last session, is aimed at making it easier for charter schools to open and giving parents more options, although many are worried it will create another level of bureaucracy and rob local school districts of state and federal tax dollars.
Senate President Pro Tem Glenn McConnell, R-Charleston, said it would only bring healthy competition to the educational system and promote excellence within it.
"It's one of the things we can do that will really have dynamic results that will bring diversity and innovation to public education," McConnell said.
Charter schools can specialize in areas such as music and the arts, or exist to serve students with special needs or those who excel academically.
Sen. John Courson, R-Columbia and chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said he could not estimate the number of charter schools that might form as a result of the legislation.
He said, though, lawmakers used North Carolina as a model for the proposed charter school system. That state has more than 100 charter schools.
Both states first authorized charter schools in 1996.
As it is now, charter schools in South Carolina need to get approval from local school boards to convert from traditional schools. They operate on local, state and federal funds based on the number of students enrolled, as do all public schools.
The problem is, according to some
lawmakers, local school boards have been reluctant to allow schools to convert because it means less money and control for the districts.
Under the proposed system, charter schools could avoid the hassle by being authorized by either the state or local board. The catch is, approval from the state would mean a loss of local funding.
Paul Krohne, executive director of the South Carolina School Boards Association, said the loss of state and federal dollars will be an issue for the districts if more charter schools are created.
"Anytime you take money away from traditional public schools, it is troublesome and a problem for us," he said.
Districts don't necessarily see a reduction in costs when students transfer, he said. They must still pay for fixed expenses such as utilities and teacher salaries, he said.
Krohne said he is also concerned that the program would be administered by Gov. Mark Sanford's office instead of the state Department of Education.
Charter schools should have oversight by local districts and the Education Department to ensure they are run properly and maintain high academic quality, Krohne said.
The proposal is an attempt to give Sanford a legislative victory, Krohne said, and would be created "just for the sake of increasing the number of charter schools."
Sanford spokesman Joel Sawyer said the governor supports the idea because it gives parents options.
"He favors school choice because he believes God makes every child different," Sawyer said.
Like McConnell, Sawyer said the governor believes more options will only strengthen public education.
"When you have more options, the pressure to create a better product increases," Sawyer said.
Senate Minority Leader John Land, D-Manning, said he would not support the legislation unless the authority to administer it would be removed from the governor's office.
"When Mark Sanford has done absolutely nothing for public education except for ill-conceived school vouchers, I am naturally suspect of his motivation," Land said.
Some charter schools have also come out in opposition to the bill, because of fear it could negatively affect funding for those already in existence. Other concerns involve adding another level of government for the charter schools to answer to.
James Island Charter School Principal Robert Bohnstengel said he understands the concerns of some charter schools, but he supports the legislation.
"It offers some options and alternatives," he said.
What's on the table
"A bill to amend Chapter 40, Title 59, Code of Laws South Carolina, 1976, relating to charter schools, so as to provide for the creation of a Carolina public charter school district, its governance, and its powers; and to provide for the manner in which a charter school sponsored by the Carolina public charter school district must be formed, funded, regulated, and governed."
Reach Yvonne M. Wenger at email@example.com or 843-745-5891.