The first charter school opened in Minnesota in 1992, and today forty-two states and the District of Columbia have charter school laws. In a new analysis of the charter school experience in South Carolina, “Cheating the Charters: Political and Financial Lessons from South Carolina,” Jonathan Butcher and Joel Medley observe, “despite the proliferation of charter laws and new schools around the country, charters and their authorizers still spend their first several years in a fight for survival.”
South Carolina was among the first states to pass a charter school law, in 1996; today it has 44 charters (2 percent of total public school enrollment), as compared to hundreds of charter schools in some other states, such as California, Arizona, and Florida. After a dozen years of fits and starts, during which only local school districts were permitted to authorize charters, legislators created an alternative authorizer, the South Carolina Public Charter School District (CSD) in 2008. This agency was allowed to authorize charters anywhere in the state.
The CSD schools operated with a severe funding disadvantage from the outset, receiving little more than the Base Student Cost (BSE) allocation, with no support that would make up for their lack of municipal tax revenue that is the largest source of funds for South Carolina’s traditional public schools. In 2008-09, the BSE was $2,476 per student, while the average per-pupil expenditure for traditional public schools in South Carolina totaled $9,162. Even when federal Title I funding for low-income students was added to the mix, the CSD per-pupil average was below $4,000, less than half the state per-pupil average. The next year, BSE funding was reduced further, to $1,630.
CSD Superintendent Wayne Brazell observes, “The funding level was so low and the opposition from so many traditional public-school groups was so fierce that many potential (charter school) parents took a ‘wait and see’ stance.” CSD implemented even more stringent cost cutting and found ways to make short-term loans to charter schools in order to stay afloat. By 2010, it had become one of the largest districts in the state. Its enrollment more than doubled from 2,464 students in 2008-09 to 6,086 in 2009-10. Don McLaurin, CSD board chair, notes, “We proved that people want this; they signed up in droves, and that put a lot of pressure on the legislature to find more money for us.”
In 2010, a boost to South Carolina’s charter movement came with the election of a strong charter supporter into the state superintendent’s office, an event that CSD’s McLaurin calls “a game changer.”
Also in 2010, Representative Phillip Owens, the chair of the House Education and Public Works Committee introduced a bill aimed at establishing a more sustainable funding policy for CSD, and despite being stalled by opponents representing traditional districts, the 2011-12 state budget included a funding increase for CSD schools. Virtual schools received an additional $1,750 per student, while brick-and mortar charters received an additional $3,250. With final per-pupil amounts in each school varying dependent on grade level, Title I status, and supplemental funds for students with disabilities, the average CSD student is now funded at approximately $5,000, a solid improvement but “still much lower than the average traditional school student.”
In August 2011, the CSD approved seven charter school applicants to open in the fall of 2012. The authors note that strong leadership in the state and district superintendents’ offices, along with more district and school staff experience, will allow schools to concentrate less on basic survival and more on effective operations and better student outcomes.