Beaufort County -- and South Carolina overall -- is embracing charter schools in a big way.
This school year, South Carolina added more than 2,000 students and seven new charter schools. That places the state among the top third in the nation for growth, according to a recent report by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.
Beaufort County accounted for about 18 percent of that growth (400 students) with the opening of Bridges Preparatory School in Beaufort last fall and increased enrollment at Riverview Charter School in Port Royal.
And now, efforts are underway to open a third charter school, the Lowcountry Montessori School, this fall in a yet-to-be-determined location. The school is already inundated with applications.
We see both good and bad in this education trend.
On the plus side, charter schools -- public schools freed from some of the requirements and restrictions to which traditional public schools must adhere -- have the potential to educate students in new and exciting ways. Because they can experiment with teaching methods and curriculum, they are particularly beneficial for students who have not fared well in traditional school settings.
Around the state, charter schools have been created to serve students with special needs, and high schoolers at risk of dropping out. Others have been created for artistically inclined students, using drama, music and dance to teach the curriculum. Others still have been formed for high-achieving, left-minded students, where math and science are emphasized.
Conversely, that experimentation means charter schools fail at a high rate. A school here this school year could be gone by fall. That's how it should be. State taxpayers should not prop up failing charter schools. But the situation requires extra vigilance on parents' part to feel out new charter schools and assess their staying power.
Also, charter schools often lack money to build or buy permanent facilities. The result, according to a 2013 report, is that 70 percent of S.C. charter schools spend part of their per-pupil operating costs that is supposed to go toward students to pay for rent, utilities and maintenance. The situation can thwart the creativity that charter schools are meant to foster.
And some of those who have attempted to run a charter school (state law allows nearly anyone to set up a charter school) say running a school looks a lot easier than it actually is. A year or two of adults trying to learn a new job may not seem like a big deal. But a child stuck in a school for a couple of years where its leadership is trying to find its footing is problematic.
For these reasons, we encourage parents to be very careful in selecting a charter school for their student and to periodically reconsider whether the learning environment suits their child's particular needs. (The S.C. Department of Education's website, https://ed.sc.gov, shows test scores and other performance data for traditional and charter schools that can help with that work.)
We also encourage parents to do their own homework instead of being swayed by false statements and stereotypes about the state's traditional public schools, many of which rival the state's top-tier private schools in both programmatic offerings and student performance.
Many parents may not know that traditional public schools are responding to parents' desire for more choice. For example, the Beaufort County School District is in the process of developing at least one choice option (be it in Montessori, dual language infusion or something else) at every one of its schools. Parents can learn more at the district's website, http://www.beaufort.k12.sc.us. Click on "hot links," then "school choice."
These traditional schools may not be as trendy as charter schools, but they are likely to offer many benefits to many students. It's worth a parent's time to check out all of the options.