Squirmy second-graders huddled in the gym at East Point Academy in West Columbia Wednesday, listening to their teachers. The children raised their hands, sang along with their music teacher and giggled as they raised their feet over their heads during a discussion of what shoes to wear in dance class.
The scene was like any you would expect on the second day of class in S.C. public schools – except for one major difference. The teachers and students were speaking Mandarin.
“Isn’t it amazing?” said Mark Bounds, the new principal of the Chinese immersion school, one of 39 schools in South Carolina’s statewide Public Charter School District.
Now entering its 10th academic year, the statewide charter school district was created to offer families choices among public schools.
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The district gives charter schools the freedom to run themselves without many of the regulations imposed on traditional public schools. In exchange, the schools promise innovative teaching and academic excellence.
The question is: After 10 years and almost $1 billion in state money spent, is the experiment working?
Or, as critics ask: Are the schools in the statewide charter district – less diverse and more affluent than traditional schools – doing a better job of teaching students? Or are they simply skimming off the most talented students?
‘Great things happen’
East Point Academy, a 4K through eighth-grade school where half the instruction is in Mandarin, is a shining example of how successful a charter school can be. Its students are more diverse than their peers across the state and outperform them in English and math.
However, not all schools in the Public Charter School District – one of the 11 largest school districts in the state and expected to cost taxpayers more than $200 million this year – are living up to their promises.
Most lag behind traditional public schools in academics. Seven schools have been forced to close, mostly for poor academic performance, and one former school administrator now is serving a federal sentence for embezzlement.
This month, two low-performing online schools asked whether they could leave the statewide charter school district in favor of another sponsor. That request came after the statewide district told the schools they were in danger of having their charters revoked.
In his second year on the job as superintendent of the statewide charter school district, Elliot Smalley said his goal is to raise the bar by having higher expectations for academic performance.
“We were created to provide something better (than traditional public schools) through innovation and autonomy,” said Smalley, who previously worked in a turn-around district in Tennessee and in Charleston County schools.
When charter schools live up to their promises, “great things happen,” he said. “They can grow and serve more kids.
“When they don’t, they’re going to be accountable for those results.”
The pitch: More for less
Critics of the charter school movement ask whether the publicly funded schools are worth the money they cost and whether their growth has come at the expense of traditional public schools.
State Sen. Mike Fanning, D-Fairfield, said charter schools initially offered a bargain that was hard to refuse.
“When the charter school movement first began, the promise was ‘Just give us the state money, and we’ll show you we can do more with less,’ ” said Fanning, a first-term legislator who once taught high school social studies in a poor, rural S.C. public school.
“If you’ve noticed, over the last 10 years, that amount of state money has increased exponentially.”
The statewide charter school district was launched in 2008-09 with five mostly virtual schools that received about $8 million from the state. In the decade since, state support for the statewide charter school district has totaled almost $1 billion, according to the district.
To some critics, charter schools are simply another hand reaching into a limited pot of state money, failing to produce consistently better results than their traditional counterparts.
▪ Last year, less than half of the statewide charter district’s schools – 42 percent – outperformed nearby public schools on elementary and middle school math tests. Still, slightly more than half of the charter district’s schools – 54 percent – did better than their traditional peers in reading. And overall, the charter district’s reading scores exceed scores statewide.
▪ On the ACT college readiness test, taken in the 11th grade, students at 11 of 16 high schools in the statewide charter district scored below the state average.
▪ Students in more than half of schools in the public charter school district are improving less than expected over the course of a year, according to the district’s accountability system.
“It’s become exactly what we and other education groups said would happen,” said Debbie Elmore with the S.C. School Boards Association. “You’re creating two systems of education,” each asking for more money from the state every year.
Choice, but for whom?
Charter school advocates say their schools often are a welcome alternative for students who are struggling in a typical school setting.
For example, a student who gets anxious or faces bullying on a huge high school campus may excel in a smaller charter school. A student who moves a lot or has a serious illness, which keeps the student out of the classroom, might benefit from a virtual classroom.
School choice advocates frequently make the case that charter schools help children escape failing public schools. But critics ask whether charter schools’ success – when they are successful – stems from the quality of students they attract.
“You don’t hear of charter schools flourishing” in communities where traditional schools struggle academically, Fanning said.
“Are they (successful charter schools) doing something really better than we are doing in regular schools, or are they taking the best and brightest, and doing spectacular things for them?” Fanning said.
Some charter schools are succeeding, even in tough circumstances.
For example, charter schools in high-poverty school districts in Jasper and Lee counties outperformed their peers in neighboring public schools on reading and math scores last year.
However, high-performing schools in the statewide charter district tend to have less poverty than do lower-performing schools, following another statewide trend.
Last year, of the charter school district’s eight “schools of distinction,” including East Point Academy, six had poverty levels lower than nearby schools.
This school year, 42 percent of the charter school district’s students are living in poverty, down from 51 percent last year. Statewide, 60 percent of all students in S.C. schools live in poverty, according to the S.C. Department of Education.
Access and equity a problem
Charter schools promise to reflect their communities. But the statewide charter school district’s schools tend to be whiter – less diverse – than their traditional public school counterparts.
The public charter school district is 67 percent white and 20 percent African-American. Statewide, 51 percent of students are white and 34 percent are black in traditional schools.
The statewide charter district is trying to help schools attract more minorities, encouraging schools to get the word out about their schools and what they offer, Smalley said.
The district also has launched a fellowship program for groups that want to open charter schools. The fellowship hopes to spend up to $500,000 to fund two groups in their development of a high-quality charter school. The goal is to find “quality leaders to open mission-driven and equitable schools” in the state, Smalley said.
Another way to expand access to charter schools would be to provide transportation for their students.
The state Education Department provides transportation to traditional schools statewide. Also, traditional schools can tax local communities to help pay for buildings and equipment.
But charter schools have no taxing authority and get no help from the state to provide transportation. If charter schools want to provide students with transportation, the schools must pay for the service themselves, often at the expense of hiring teachers or paying for other priorities, Smalley said.
As a result, only four schools in the statewide district offer transportation for students. The rest ask parents to ensure their children get to and from school, leaving out families who lack transportation.
That could change if charter school advocates persuade state lawmakers to give their schools more state dollars.
Smalley said he will push for state money to provide transportation to at least some charter schools.
Citing high-poverty Jasper County as an example, Smalley said that when a charter school’s students outperform neighborhood schools – “and families cannot access those schools because there’s no buses for them to catch – that’s an access and equity issue, and doesn’t seem fair.”
How successful are SC charter schools?
Ten years in, a look at how the Palmetto State’s charter schools stack up compared to traditional schools:
The percentage of students in grades three though eight who met or exceeded expectations on the SC READY statewide assessment
English language arts
Average scores of 11th-graders taking the ACT college readiness exam in 2016
S.C. Charter: 17.8
SOURCES: S.C. Public Charter School District, S.C. Department of Education