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 in the state since the alternative to traditional public education was legalized there in 1996. This year 17,000 South Carolina students are enrolled in 47 charter schools. Of those schools, 34 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, Ragley said.
Financing, Extracurricular Options
Under current law, charter funding sources may not pay for facilities. Charter schools often find and convert space in strip malls, churches, or office buildings.
The legislation would create a loan program enabling charters to accept federal, or more likely private, funds to pay rental and maintenance costs for 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 the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.
Currently, South Carolina online students can participate in community or private extracurricular activities but not in public school programs. The bill would allow charter students to try out for sports team or take music classes at nearby traditional schools.
The legislation would also permit single-gender schools. Currently, schools may offer single-gender classes only if they also offer coed classes.
Image by Henry de Saussure Copeland.