Other Views

We don't have to be at bottom in education

As most residents of South Carolina know, we are next to last in the nation in academic performance, as measured by a national nonpartisan public school organization using National Association of Educational Progress testing information.

Unfortunately, being last or next to last has been the case for far too many years. And anyone in Beaufort County who believes that we are an exception, should not be misled. We are below state averages.

Members of the General Assembly, every year, sit on their collective hands, fearful for their re-elections because of the influence of officials from the 85 school districts, who believe that the status quo is sufficient and all they need is more money to fix the many problems. Same request every year. Same results every year.

This year's school choice bill, hailed by many in the House but which may not pass in the Senate, is so watered down it is almost useless.

However, there may be a solution to our decades-old problem. While the likelihood of it happening anytime soon is somewhere between zero and none, at least consider it for the points made.

Let's convert all of the K-12 Beaufort County public schools to public charter schools. It has been done before elsewhere, and it worked. First, understand that charter schools are public schools funded by the taxpayers of the county, the state and the federal government. They cannot refuse to take any student in the county. Each school is run by its own board of governors and not by the local board of education, nor the local school district administration if they are sponsored by the S.C. Public Charter School District. They can choose how to run their school, can choose their curriculum and can hire and fire their teachers and administrators without cause, except for discrimination.

So what would be the benefits? We would not need a local board of education. We would not need a large administration and the expense of the large office spaces they now occupy. The only real role of a county school administration would be of collecting taxpayer money to pay down existing debt. Since the school buildings are owned by the taxpayers of the county, and charter schools are also public schools, they would all be transferred to the public charter schools at no cost. The annual cost of educating students would fall from about $12,000 per student to about $7,000, including debt, and all but the debt money would come from the state and federal government through the S.C. Public Charter School District instead of the Beaufort County School District. Millions of local and state taxpayer dollars would be saved in addition to the most important reason -- offering our K-12 children the opportunity for a better education.

So what are the negatives? A number of poor performing teachers and principals would lose their jobs. A large number of unneeded administrators would lose their jobs.

While this is only an idea, please stop and think for a moment what it all means. If public charters can improve test scores (and they do; just look at Riverview Charter School), why is it not possible for traditional schools to do the same? No doubt, excuses abound.

Some will discount this as a silly exercise and find reasons that it will not work. However, who in South Carolina is looking for and working toward the solutions to our educational problems? It is not in the 85 school districts. It is not in the General Assembly. Then who?

Are we not all ashamed to be near the bottom in public education? I am. I hope you are, too.

Tom Hatfield of Hilton Head Island was a founding board member of the S.C. Public Charter School District.