A public feud between the state’s publicly funded charter-school district and four of its low-performing schools is drawing pointed criticisms from lawmakers, asking whether charter schools, granted more freedoms in exchange for better results, are working.
"It appears to me like the charter school program is in a state of chaos," state Sen. Vincent Sheheen, D-Kershaw, told S.C. Public Charter School District superintendent Elliot Smalley during a state budget hearing Thursday.
"Frankly, anyone connected with it at this point has not a lot of credibility and that includes your agency,” Sheheen said. “The picture out there in the public is that there are disputes, lawsuits, legal matters going on, chaos.”
At the heart of the "chaos" is the effort by four charter schools, deemed failing by the statewide charter school district, to leave the state district for a new boss: a newly formed charter-school authorizer at Erskine College, a private Christian college in the Upstate.
The statewide charter district’s board of trustees denied a request by the schools to transfer their oversight to Erskine in November. Threats of lawsuits and a mediation followed. Now, the schools are leaving for Erskine anyway.
Wondering aloud how the schools can leave after being denied a transfer, state Sen. Sean Bennett, R-Dorchester, said, “I just thought polygamy was illegal.”
However, according to an attorney for the state charter school district, S.C. law does not prohibit charter school organizations from holding multiple charters – contracts promising to meet specific goals in exchange for more freedom and autonomy than traditional public schools.
Referring to the disputes, Sheheen said he cannot say for sure whether the students in the public charter schools are getting services the state can be proud of.
Smalley said the tension in the charter school community stems from his attempt to hold schools accountable, something he said was not being done prior to his hiring in 2015.
Chronic low performance at many of the charter schools led him to make changes. Those changes have been “uncomfortable,” he said.
But, he added, “It's my responsibility to ensure flat out that students and taxpayers are getting what they deserve.”
Erskine’s Charter Institute has accepted the four schools whose transfer requests previously were denied by the statewide public charter school district: three online schools — the S.C. Virtual Charter School, Cyber Academy of South Carolina and Odyssey Online Learning — and the brick-and-mortar Midlands Stem Institute.
The statewide district cited persistently low academic performance at the schools in rejecting their bids to transfer to Erskine’s supervision. It also questioned whether Erskine would be able to hold the failing schools accountable.
Cameron Runyan, chief executive officer of Erskine’s Charter Institute, told The State the Charter Institute is taking a different approach to holding schools accountable that will take into account how unique they are.
“Under our model, they will be held accountable for their performance without any equivocation,” he said.
However, he said, virtual schools, which are among the lowest performing charter schools in the state, are “just different” and need to be held to different standards – standards that will be created in collaboration with state education officials and charter-school experts.
Most virtual school students, Runyan said, come in learning below their grade level, are in danger of being “completely evicted from the public-school system” or have faced bullying in a brick-and-mortar school, he said.
Leaders of the transferring schools have said they do not get the support they needed from the statewide charter school district. Erskine, they say, will be a better fit.
“We’re cautiously optimistic,” Cherry Daniel, head of school at S.C. Virtual, said Thursday after the budget hearing.