The South Carolina legislature voted to merge two versions of a bill that could increase the number of public charter schools in the state.
Key to H.B. 3241 are measures that would diversify the types of sponsoring organizations, launch a loan program, and allow greater flexibility in charter school course and extracurricular offerings.
“Superintendent Mick Zais is convinced one size does not fit all in education,” said Jay Ragley, a South Carolina Department of Education spokesman.
In a state that has historically struggled against poor student achievement, he said, increasing experimentation in education creates a better chance of developing strong programs.
“Public charter schools are a way we can offer options to parents and to students—they’re a win-win for everyone involved,” Ragley said. “If they don’t meet the performance objectives in their charter, they close.”
This is the third major iteration of charter school legislation since the alternative to traditional public education was legalized in the state in 1996. This year, 17,000 South Carolina students are enrolled in 47 charter schools. Of that number, 34 schools are sponsored by local school districts and 13 are part of the statewide charter school district, which includes both brick-and-mortar and virtual schools.
The bill would add a third funding source: independent sponsors. Proponents hope diversifying sponsor types would encourage universities, among others, to create charters as live teaching labs for education students.
“We believe having multiple sponsors of charter schools will encourage more of them,” Ragley said.
Increasing Financing Options
Under current law, charter funding sources may not pay for facilities, and charter schools often find and convert space in strip malls, churches or offices.
The new legislation creates a revolving loan program that would enable charters to accept federal, or more likely private, funds to pay rental and maintenance costs for a school space.
“Charter schools are public schools, therefore the students who are choosing to attend should have the same access and opportunities to facilities and a positive learning environment,” said Stephanie Grisham, spokeswoman for National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.
Flexible Extracurriculars and Classrooms
Online students in South Carolina can participate in community or private programs, but not in public school programs. Under this bill, a charter student could try out for a sports team or take a music class at a nearby traditional school.
Additionally, the bill would permit the creation of single-gender schools. Currently, schools must offer single-gender classes in tandem with coed classes.
“If a community wants to support a school that just serves boys or girls, they should have the ability to do that,” Ragley said.
“It is one of the great things about public charter schools—the idea that they can be a bit more innovative with their structure, curriculum, et cetera, as long as they are adhering to their charter and providing students with a high-quality education and a measurable increase in student achievement,” Grisham said.
Image of South Carolina charter school opening by Henry de Saussure Copeland.