State Politics

These struggling SC public schools could see their funding tied to academic achievement

How do charter schools work?

Charter schools are one option in the growing "school choice" movement. Funded by taxpayer money, these schools are growing nationally, though some states have yet to pass related laws.
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Charter schools are one option in the growing "school choice" movement. Funded by taxpayer money, these schools are growing nationally, though some states have yet to pass related laws.

Some of the state’s lowest-performing public schools — once promised as better alternatives to struggling traditional schools — could see their state funding cut if their students’ academic performance does not improve.

South Carolina lawmakers are exploring whether to tie state support for the state’s publicly-funded charter schools to their academic performance and graduation rates. The decision to study the idea — discussed Monday by state education leaders — comes as lawmakers wrestle with how to pay for rapidly increasing enrollment in public charter schools, while the pot of money set aside to fund those schools is growing much more slowly.

“How else do we hold really good schools accountable for the growth of students?” said state Rep. Bill Taylor, R-Aiken, who chaired Monday’s S.C. House hearing on charter schools. “We tend to avoid that in public education. We simply just want all of our schools to be successful. There’s a great deal of enthusiasm for it.”

Lawmakers have asked the S.C. Education Oversight Committee through the state’s budget to come up with a better way to pay for public charter schools, possibly including graduation rates and academic achievement as benchmarks for qualifying for funding. The Oversight Committee, a state education accountability agency, must present its findings and proposals to the General Assembly by next summer.

So far, the proposal has one important backer in Elliot Smalley, the reform-minded director of the state’s Public Charter School District.

“I am for investing in what works in education,” Smalley told The State, adding that, while the district had no involvement in the creation of the proposal, it has its own benchmarks for gauging whether a charter school is performing well or not. “That’s what’s best for students and taxpayers. I’m a fan of looking at a range of measures that give a picture of a full performance.

The head of the Charter Institute of Erskine, which like the Public Charter School District is allowed to approve charter schools for operation, said the idea, “conceptually, ... has some merit.”

“But we have to be careful that we understand the dynamics of the environment that we’re looking at,” said CEO Cameron Runyan.

Persistent questions about school quality are driving debate over whether the state should continue to spend more and more money on charter schools. Lawmakers have given these schools more flexibility in exchange for them aiming to outperform traditional public schools.

A handful of state charter schools — particularly virtual schools which allow students to take classes exclusively online — have struggled academically, faring no better in some cases than low-performing traditional public schools. Defenders of those schools say their students — about half of the state’s total charter school students — often come to them as a last option when attending a traditional school does not work out.

But critics of the schools argue they were promised better results.

Should the state decide to base charter school funding off performance, lawmakers should avoid a blanket approach, some say.

“We need to make sure we’re being honest with what they are dealing with,” Runyan said.

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Maayan Schechter (My-yahn Schek-ter) covers the S.C. State House and politics for The State. She grew up in Atlanta, Ga. and graduated from the University of North Carolina-Asheville. She has previously worked at the Aiken Standard and the Greenville News.
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