Cindi Ross Scoppe

Why are we letting failing charter schools game the system, and send us the bill?

EMILY HASN’T been studying or paying attention in class, and she’s about to flunk out of the English course she needs to graduate this spring. So her parents hatch this great idea: They will pressure the school to transfer her, two-thirds of the way through the semester, to a different teacher. A teacher whose grading will be more … generous.

When the principal says no, they go over her head to some school board members, who pull the necessary strings to get the little princess all graduated. Despite the fact that she doesn’t know enough to graduate. Much less to succeed in any decent college.

No, it’s not unheard of, but all of us who are honest and decent and actually think that kids need to learn something in school would agree that this isn’t just gaming the system. It’s cheating.

And this is precisely what four failing charter schools are doing — over the objections of the special school district that was created just to make it easier for them to succeed, and so far with the tacit approval of our Legislature.

Except this is way worse.

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Cindi Ross Scoppe

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This isn’t just one student getting a pass — or, more accurately, getting cheated out of her education.

It’s potentially thousands of students.

And we are footing the bill. We’re throwing our tax money down a rat hole to fund schools that are failing to meet our standards. Schools that would have to improve or close if they weren’t able to game the system. And every dollar we shove down that rat hole is a dollar we cannot spend to actually educate kids.

Now, to be clear: I think charter schools are a great idea. At their best, they are laboratories of innovation. Freed from many regulations that it would be irresponsible not to impose on some schools, they have the flexibility to experiment with new ways to teach. Because their governance is parent- and teacher-centered, they encourage a level of parental involvement that surpasses that of even the most dedicated parents in regular public schools.

And South Carolina’s charter school law includes the accountability to the taxpayers that would not be not available if we sent our tax dollars to private schools through tuition tax credits or vouchers. They have to administer and report the same tests as regular public schools, and meet the same education standards, and they have to close if they fail. That is, unless we let people game the system. Which is what is happening.

Our original charter school law, passed in 1996, required school districts to sign off on would-be charter schools. But many school boards were hostile to charter schools. So in 2006, the Legislature created the statewide Public Charter School District that could authorize and oversee charter schools, and the movement took off. In 2013, lawmakers allowed colleges to serve as charter school authorizers, in order to accommodate an effort by S.C. State University to open its own charter school.

Then last year, the private Erskine College decided to get into the charter authorizer business, a move critics say was designed to lower the standards for charter schools and prop up the financially ailing university, which would keep 2 percent of the tens of millions of tax dollars the schools receive each year. The charter district agreed to let five schools transfer to Erskine’s control, but it rejected the applications of four schools that were in “breach” status, which is a nice way of saying they’re failing: the S.C. Virtual Charter School, Cyber Academy of South Carolina, Odyssey Online Learning and Midlands STEM Institute, which have a combined budget of $41 million.

Now those schools claim they don’t need permission and are transferring anyway. Which brings us to our tacitly approving Legislature.

Some legislators are trying to stop schools from doing what princess Emily did, by making it impossible for failing schools to transfer, or forcing them to take their “breached” status with them. Some also want to remove any financial incentive to oversee the schools. But so far, no legislation has even made it out of committee.

The failing charter schools insist that they are not really failing. They teach hard-to-teach students, they argue, and shouldn’t be held to the same standards as schools that teach easy-to-teach students. That argument might sound familiar if you’ve paid attention to our failing traditional schools, most of which teach students who come from poor families and often have little if any parental support.

I sympathize, in both cases, because it is more difficult to educate kids whose parents can’t or won’t help, and it is tougher to educate kids who have been expelled from regular schools or who have illnesses that keep them out of regular classrooms.

But this is an objection that the type of politicians who are most enthusiastic about charter schools tend to dismiss as just another excuse. More importantly, it’s an objection that is answered not by accepting failure but by finding a better way to measure progress. Which is not an easy thing to do. Erskine says it’s going to do just that, and maybe it will. Even though it has a strong financial incentive to say the schools are just fine when they’re not.

The lawmakers who want to prohibit failing charter schools from authorizer-shopping are right. And the Legislature needs to take action. Now. Before we get stuck paying for even more schools that are cheating children out of an education.

Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at cscoppe@thestate.com or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter or like her on Facebook @CindiScoppe.

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