The number of charter schools in South Carolina is skyrocketing, but many are not producing results in the classrooms, according to standardized test scores.
Others are facing financial peril. Proposed legislation is aimed at changing that.
Since 2006, the number of charter schools in South Carolina has grown from 29 to 44, according to the S.C. Department of Education.
Nearly 16,000 students now attend the schools -- tuition-free public schools intended to encourage innovative approaches to educating students. The schools are freed from many state regulations to chart new instructional paths or focus on specific student groups.
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For example, some charter schools cater to gifted and talented students; others focus on helping students likely to drop out. Any person or group can start a charter school, and, within agreed-upon accountability standards, the sponsor is free to choose the school's curriculum, hours, calendar and more.
But freedom has not resulted in a large number of stellar schools. So far, charter schools' test scores are a mixed bag:
By comparison, slightly more of the state's traditional elementary and middle schools -- 44 percent -- were rated average. Thirty-eight percent of those traditional schools were rated above average, while only 18 percent were rated below average.
Of nearly 200 traditional high schools, about a third were rated above average. About half scored "average," and 20 percent were rated below average.
Former State Superintendent of Education Jim Rex, an advocate of charter schools who recently left office, said the state charter test scores are similar to those in other states.
"Nationwide, charters have a spotty performance," Rex said. "There are some that are really the best examples of what public schools can be -- hotbeds of innovation with new approaches to reaching students. But in many cases, they're not doing as well as other public schools."
'WORKING TO ... IMPROVE'
While many start out with the best of intentions when forming charter schools, good intentions are not enough, Rex said. Many South Carolina groups working to form charter schools have struggled to find appropriate school buildings and operate within a budget.
"It's a lot of tough work to put together a school that works, especially if you're concentrating on at-risk kids, kids who may drop out, special-needs kids," Rex said. "It can be an expensive proposition."
A new grant won by the state Department of Education is designed to help the state charter schools perform better.
Eleven charter schools have applied for and received portions of the almost $11 million, three-year grant to train teachers, buy educational supplies, develop curriculum and use data to drive instruction.
"We're working to help the schools improve," said Julie Hartwell, who oversees charter schools for the state education department. "It is a work in progress. Change doesn't happen overnight."
A shift in the state's and nation's attitude toward charter schools could boost student performance, says Wayne Brazell, superintendent of the S.C. Public Charter School District.
"When the charter school movement started here in South Carolina and nationally, back in the mid '90s, any charter school that wanted to start, they were approved," Brazell said. "Not a lot of thought was given to creating high-quality charter schools. Many of those original schools have since failed financially or academically and closed down.
"The discussion has shifted. Everybody realizes the mistake of not emphasizing quality. We've changed our mission to make it clear that we expect high academic performance. I think in the next five to six years, you'll see the quality improve as (the schools) that aren't performing close."
Since 1997, 20 South Carolina charter schools have closed.
Brazell said he is worried several more, including high-performing ones, will shut down in coming years because of money woes. Eleven charter schools are sponsored by the state, instead of a local school district. Those schools get no local money, only state and federal dollars.
"We're actually at a desperation point," Brazell said. "The funding is so low I don't think the district will exist much longer if we don't get some help."
The financially stressed schools include the state's five online charter schools, which allow students to take classes and interact with other students and teachers via the Internet. Online schools, launched last year, are proving to be the most popular charter school option, enrolling nearly 7,500 students this school year.
New legislation, sponsored by state Rep. Phil Owens, a Pickens County Republican and chairman of the House's education committee, is aimed at better funding charters schools.
His bill -- a priority for House Republicans -- would require local school districts to give as much money to charter schools within their geographic boundaries as they give to traditional schools. Online charter schools would get 75 percent of the money that traditional, brick and mortar schools receive.
"All public schools deserve local funding," Owens said.