The number of charter schools in South Carolina and the number of students attending them have nearly doubled in the past five school years.
But improvements to the state's charter school laws -- first enacted in 1996 -- have not kept the same pace.
A report released Tuesday by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools ranks South Carolina 15th for the quality of its charter school laws. The state scored 147 of a possible 228 points -- six better than 2013 but still just 64 percent of the total.
While the state ranks in the top third of the 43 states with charter school laws, it falls short in some of the most important aspects of the law -- such as accountability for chartering organizations and access to funding and facilities, according to the fifth annual report.
"The biggest thing keeping South Carolina out of the top 10 right now is our lack of facilities funding and funding in general," said Mary Carmichael, executive director of the Public Charter School Alliance of South Carolina.
Charter schools have opened in Beaufort and Jasper counties in recent years, but most encountered challenges of some sort. For example, all three up-and-running schools -- Bridges Preparatory School in Beaufort, Riverview Charter School in Port Royal and Royal Live Oaks Academy in Hardeeville -- have had difficulty finding permanent homes.
The lack of a state funding in South Carolina doesn't help, Riverview director Alison Thomas said. The state established a revolving loan program for charter schools in 2012, but no money has been put in the fund.
"This is a strong component to the Charter Schools Act, but (it is) meaningless without funding," Thomas said.
The state also needs to hold groups that charter schools more accountable, study author Todd Ziebarth said. In general, states must ensure that only schools ready to open are approved, only those that are successful are renewed and that those that haven't been successful are closed, he said.
Several charters in the state have been revoked, Carmichael said, but sponsoring groups often are unwilling to close failing schools. A charter school accountability bill currently in the S.C. Senate could change that, she said.
Although South Carolina's rank this year dropped three spots from 12th the year before, that followed a jump from 25th in the 2012 rankings.
Several strengths of the state's laws include no limit on the number of charter schools or students, as well as allowing virtual schools to reach additional students.
The state also is the only one that provides both eligibility and access to extracurricular activities, Ziebarth said. State students have access at a non-charter school if their charter school doesn't provide the activities.
"I think there has been fairly positive momentum with the improvements made in South Carolina," he said. "A lot of work has been done to improve charter laws, and we know that work will continue this session."
Follow reporter Sarah Bowman at twitter.com/IPBG_Sarah.
- National Alliance for Public Charter School's model law
- 2014 state charter school law rankings
- Report: SC charter schools have inadequate access to facilities, amenities, November 17, 2013
- Charter schools experience first-year growing pains, September 14, 2013
- South Carolina charter school data
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