The Index-Journal (Greenwood, SC)
A combination of home schooling and online instruction is an option that appeals to a growing number of American parents. In South Carolina, families are beginning to be able to have that as well as other education choices via 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 hoped to kick-start greater school choice for families, and that appears to be happening, even as the statehouse debate continues to rage over tax credits and vouchers to expand the range of choice to private schooling.
As it struggles to deal with the harsh reality of a third of its public schools failing to meet minimal testing standards, South Carolina is looking at choice as a path to improved educational opportunities for all. In so doing, it could become a national model.
National studies have shown that independently managed charter schools have been much slower to emerge in states (for example, Virginia and Maryland) that give local school boards sole power to authorize charters. South Carolina is showing how it is possible to work within the district system 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. Students take state-required tests in person at locations around the state, and the school also organizes educational field trips.
“We wanted the flexibility of having the children at home, but we needed the teachers’ help,” said Krystal Daye, a mom of four who had found some of the organizational demands of home schooling, such as grading papers, to be daunting. “We had been looking for different options when we moved to South Carolina from Maryland, and we have found Connections Academy to be a really good option for us.”
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.
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