A growing rift in South Carolina’s 10-year-old, $1 billion charter school experiment will be on public display Thursday as nine schools ask to leave the state’s charter school district.
The charter schools say they want to be regulated by private Erskine College, instead of the state’s Public Charter School District.
However, state district’s leaders say they have concerns that most of the schools want out from under state oversight because they are failing and at risk of being closed.
Meanwhile, the Charter School District asked a state watchdog to audit four of the schools to determine whether they had misreported their enrollment numbers. Such an error, if it led to inflated attendance numbers, could lead to the schools getting tens of thousands of dollars in state taxpayer money that they were not entitled to.
However, the S.C. inspector general said Wednesday night that he had found no evidence the schools were fudging their enrollment numbers.
Wanted: A new boss
South Carolina started its public charter school experiment 10 years ago and has given charter schools almost $1 billion in taxpayer money, including more than $200 million this school year.
Billed as the state’s experiment in public-school choice, the charter schools promised to be innovative alternatives to traditional public schools, operating with more freedom in exchange for meeting academic goals – and others – outlined in their charters.
However, on Thursday, the Public Charter School District’s trustees will hear requests by nine of the district’s 39 schools to leave the state district for a new boss – or “authorizer,” in charter-school parlance.
It is the first time charter schools have asked to leave the state district for a new authorizer.
Seven of the schools that want out of the state charter district have been flagged by the district for not meeting their goals. Five are in breach of their charters, which could lead to the schools being closed, and two are on cautionary status, the district said.
Charter School District leaders have raised concerns that most of the schools want to leave because their students are failing academically and the schools are at risk of being closed.
The schools have said they are looking for more support from their authorizing organization.
‘Millions of dollars of taxpayer funds’
The timing of the request for the inspector general’s review of four of the charter schools underscores that division.
The district asked the S.C. inspector general to conduct the review after it said it found irregularities in attendance data for the four schools, which it oversees. The district found the irregularities while reviewing schools in violation of their charters for failing to deliver on academic promises to students, according to a Nov. 6 letter from the state inspector general.
The review covered four schools: Midlands STEM Institute in Winnsboro and three virtual charter schools that conduct classes online – the Cyber Academy of South Carolina, Odyssey Online Learning and the South Carolina Virtual Charter School.
The official results of the inspector general’s review have not been published yet.
However, state inspector general Brian Lamkin on Wednesday said he found no evidence the schools were gaming the system, claiming higher enrollment to get more state taxpayer money.
“Preliminarily, because we’re not finished with writing the report ... there’s nothing to suggest that the schools are abusing the system,” said Lamkin.
Instead, the review found hiccups in the enrollment reporting system.
Early Wednesday, Charter School District spokesperson Taylor Fulcher declined to comment about the inspector general’s review.
Fulcher said the district requested the review to ensure the schools are following the law – on attendance and other issues. Monitoring the charter schools is part of the state district’s “oversight duties to watch over the use of millions of dollars of taxpayer funds and ensure student learning in public charter schools,” she said.
‘Clean bill of health’
An attorney representing one of the four schools under review, the Midlands STEM Institute, said he’s confident that school would fare well in the audit.
“The inspector general himself and his staff have visited the school, obtained the records, (and) we’ve been fully cooperative,” said attorney Mike Kelly, whose law group has offices in Winnsboro, Columbia and Myrtle Beach.
“While I cannot be sure, I am very confident we are going to get a clean bill of health.”