The role of charter schools in K-12 education reform could gain focus in this fall’s Virginia gubernatorial election.
Republican candidate Bob McDonnell said last week Virginians ought to have alternative ways of getting many more good charter schools on line. Democratic candidate Creigh Deeds also has indicated he favors charter schools, although he has not yet emphasized them in his campaign.
Meanwhile, Democratic President Barack Obama has been advocating greater use of independently managed charters to turn around failing public schools nationwide. His Education Secretary, Arne Duncan, hinted last month that states failing to expand charter opportunities would be at risk of losing a share of the $5 billion incentive fund he is charged with distributing as part of federal “stimulus” spending.
States such as Virginia, where charter growth has been stunted (only four such schools in the entire state, out of 4,600 nationally) by the lack of authorizers other than local school boards, could do well to look at South Carolina, where families are beginning to benefit from an innovative method of authorizing public charter schools.
South Carolina Connections Academy, the Palmetto State’s initial statewide online charter school, recently achieved a 93 percent parental-satisfaction rating in its first year of operation. The Academy represents a new kind of public school that students can attend from home, tuition-free.
The Academy and two other cyber and two bricks-and-mortar schools are the first K-12 charters to be authorized by the new South Carolina Public Charter School District.
By setting up a statewide district, Gov. Mark Sanford and legislative leaders opted to kick-start greater school choice for families, even as statehouse debate continues to rage over tax credits and vouchers to expand the range of choice to private schooling.
Sanford sought on principle to turn down his state’s $700 million share of the overall stimulus package unless it could be used to pay down debt, and finally accepted the money this week in compliance with a court order. But his leadership in paving the way for more charter choice could wind up qualifying his state for some of the incentive money.
National studies have shown that charter schools have been much slower to emerge in states like Virginia that give local school boards exclusive power to authorize charters. South Carolina is showing how it is possible to work within the district system and state constitutional constraints to bring about greater choice.
In Connections Academy, parents function as their children’s coach, closely monitoring their study, while working as part of a team with licensed teachers who deliver the instruction via web-conferencing and phone. The school supplies textbooks along with online resources.
The statewide charter school district is a natural authorizer for schools like Connections that have a statewide student body. However, it also is available to those with well-conceived blueprints for charter schools in local districts. Not all local school boards have the resources to evaluate charter-school proposals and of course some are wary of privately run charters as competition for conventional schools.
Just one year in, the South Carolina Public Charter School District (SCPCSD) seems to be boosting the charter-school movement, notes its superintendent/executive director, Dr. Timothy H. Daniels. The district authorized five schools enrolling 2,500 students this year, which contributed to a 57 percent one-year increase in S.C. charter enrollment, which is currently about 8,500.
For 2009-10, the SCPCSD anticipates an increase to about 6,000 students in its five cyber and three brick-and-mortar schools. Partially as a result, total charter school enrollment in the state is expected to exceed 12,000.
“So, for two years in a row,” said Dr. Daniels, “S.C. charter school enrollment potentially can increase by more than 50 percent a year. At the very least, SCPCSD has played a very significant role in this dramatic expansion.”
That organizers and families have flocked to SCPCSD charters is all the more remarkable when one considers a glaring funding disparity. Schools in the statewide district have had to operate on just $3,400 per student, which is almost $7,000 per pupil less than the average for local school districts. The shortfall results from the SCPCSD schools receiving no local funding at all.
At its recent session, the state legislature enacted a special provision that will raise SCPCSD funding to a little over $5,000 per student. “While this is still very low compared to national averages,” said Dr. Daniels, “it will allow our schools to survive and continue to advocate for even fairer funding.”
Given the growing demand for parental choice in education, it is a good bet that these alternatives for South Carolina citizens will not only survive but thrive. Will Virginians get a similar opportunity?
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