Education

A private college will manage 5 SC public schools; what does that mean for students?

25% of these SC public schools want new management

Nine of 39 South Carolina Charter schools have asked for a new boss, or 'authorizer'.
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Nine of 39 South Carolina Charter schools have asked for a new boss, or 'authorizer'.

Five of the state’s publicly funded charter schools will have an Upstate private school as their new boss next year.

The S.C. Public Charter School District’s trustees Thursday approved requests by the five schools to transfer their oversight to Erskine College’s nonprofit Charter Institute from the state.

The district rejected transfer applications from four other charters, including three virtual schools that are among the lowest performing public charters in South Carolina.

The charters that won approval for Erskine to be their new boss, or “authorizer,” in charter-school parlance, are: Gray Collegiate Academy in West Columbia, Oceanside Collegiate Academy in Mount Pleasant, Coastal Leadership Academy in Socastee, Royal Live Oaks Academy in Jasper and Mevers School of Excellence in Goose Creek.

South Carolina has 39 schools in its Charter School District.

The requests to leave the state Charter School District represent the first major rift between the district and its schools since the alternative K-12 system was created 10 years ago. Since then, public charter schools have cost S.C. taxpayers nearly $1 billion.

The transfer requests mean the Charter Institute at Erskine, a nonprofit within the private college operated by some of its leaders, will provide oversight to the public schools and manage the $18 million a year in taxpayer money that flows to them, starting in the 2018-19 school year.

As the charter-school authorizer, Erskine’s Charter Institute also will get part of the money that the state sends the schools.

State law does not limit the fees a higher education institution can charge a charter school for oversight, said former Columbia city councilman Cameron Runyan, executive director of Erskine’s charter-school nonprofit. However, the institute plans to charge the schools the same fee that state law allows the S.C. Public Charter School District to levy: 2 percent of the school’s state money.

For the five schools transferring, that means about $360,000 a year in taxpayer money flowing to the Erskine nonprofit, according to the Charter School District.

Runyan said Erskine created the nonprofit to ensure transparency and head off questions about whether state money is flowing into the coffers of a private college.

The Charter Institute, Runyan said, is “subject to (the state’s public records law) and all of that money has to be used for oversight of the schools,” he said, adding the institute likely will pay the college for services that it provides.

In addition to the five charter schools transferring from the state district, Erskine’s institute has accepted a charter school from Berkeley County and has 24 letters of intent from groups interested in creating new charter schools, Runyan said.

Four requests denied

The charter district’s board denied requests by the Midlands STEM Institute in Winnsboro and three virtual public charter schools – the Cyber Academy of South Carolina, the S.C. Virtual Charter School and Odyssey Online Learning – to leave the state district for Erskine, citing concerns about the persistently low academic performance of students in those schools.

“If a school is going to perform well, they’re doing it by three years” after they open, said district chairman Don McLaurin, before a vote that denied one school’s request.

Trustees said it would be irresponsible to allow the four schools – deemed failing by the state district – and their students to transfer to a newly formed organization.

“I’m not sure that it’s wise ... for us to release schools that are poor performing to a group that is getting off the ground,” McLaurin said.

Some of the schools seeking Erskine’s oversight said they would have more opportunities for staff professional development and collaboration with the college than they now have with the state district.

Other schools said they have struggled to work with the Charter School District to resolve data management questions and other issues.

“We don’t feel like we’re getting very much for our 2 percent,” said Marie Milam, executive director of the Midlands STEM Institute, referring to the money the district keeps from a school’s state money.

Milam also said charter schools with large numbers of rural students living in poverty are not getting the extra state support that they need to help those students succeed.

Traditional public schools also have made that complaint.

Some charter school leaders also complained their relationship with the state district has soured. The schools and district officials disagreed over whether the district has been supportive and open to helping the schools improve.

Midlands STEM Institute chairman Kevin Thomas accused the state district’s administration of being “vindictive” in asking the state inspector general to review his school’s attendance data.

Chairman McLaurin disagreed, saying there was “no vindictiveness in (his) heart” or that of district superintendent Elliot Smalley, who has said holding low-performing charter schools accountable for their performance is a top priority.

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