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A Tale of Two Charter Schools

If ever there was a case for more school choice – and an example of roadblocks the public education establishment sets up to thwart it – Hope Academy Charter School is such an example.

The story of Hope Academy is at once a tale of a community – well – hoping; and – by contrast – an entrenched system holding fast to power and money.

Nonprofits organized at the community level, charter schools receive public money, but cannot levy taxes, and are free from many rules and regulations that apply to traditional public schools. In exchange, they are held accountable for their students achieving, or not, the same standards.

In July, the seven-member board of rapidly growing Richland School District 2 unanimously approved a charter school that is expected to serve up to 80 or more of the district’s high school students who are at risk of dropping out.

One week later, the board again without dissent denied a charter school application for Hope Academy, which some 400 parents in northeast Richland County have worked for months to establish as an elementary school alternative.

The kicker: The Charter School Advisory Committee, an arm of the State Board of Education charged with determining whether charter school applications meet requirements of state law, had signed off on both the high school and Hope Academy proposals – and on the same day, to boot.

A planning committee representing Hope Academy (state law mandates such an entity to create a charter school) is appealing the board’s rejection of the group’s plan to the state Administrative Law Court.

“We fully expect the Administrative Court to overturn the district’s decision,” says Michael Letts, chairman of the committee.

Under S.C. law, that is the first step to contest denial of a charter school application. From there, if necessary, it’s on to the state Court of Appeals and then the S.C. Supreme Court.

To a large degree, Letts says of the Richland 2 board’s decision on Hope Academy, “It’s a matter of control.”

It also would seem to be about money.

People who want to establish a charter school in the state have two options for getting it approved: either the S.C. Public Charter School District, a state entity that operates much like any other district except that it covers all of South Carolina, or their local school board.

With regard to funding, it matters big time which route folks choose. One of the charter school requirements is financial viability, and it is eminently more possible via the local avenue.

A charter school approved by the state district receives 100 percent of the base student cost per pupil, an amount determined by a formula in the S.C. Education Finance Act. This year it is $1,765, after 4 percent and 5 percent across-the-board state budget cuts, according to Mellanie Jinnette, financial systems manager at the S.C. Department of Education.

The base student cost is higher for some pupils, such as those with a disability.

A locally authorized charter school, on the other hand, receives a base student cost calculated using the general fund revenue of the sponsoring district's audited financial statements.

Averaging $5,800 per student, revenue for charter schools that school boards OK is significantly greater than it is for those that go through the state district – by more than $4,000 this year – “because their per-pupil calculation includes local funding,” Jinnette says.

That some charter schools succeed on far smaller budgets than their conventional public counterparts points up a financial tragedy in K-12 schooling, Letts says. “What does that tell you about the dollars we’re spending on education costs in this country?” he asks rhetorically.

The funding dynamic also provides a seemingly transparent explanation for why the Richland 2 board shot down Hope Academy.

Along those lines, Letts says the fact that the charter high school the board approved will take 80 or so potential dropouts off the district’s hands should not be discounted.

Projected to open in August 2010, the charter high school will be located on Old Clemson Road, Richland 2 spokeswoman Theresa Riley says.

That is the same part of Richland County where Hope Academy would be sited.

The high school will be independent of the district, Riley says. Its name: Richland School District Two Charter High School.

If that leaves you wondering about the assertion of independence, venture a little farther down the rabbit hole:

Former Richland 2 board Chairman Robert Dozier was chairman of the charter high school planning committee.

Upstate resident David Church, founder of the South Carolina Association of Public Charter Schools, says he is familiar with both Richland 2 cases. “They can’t pick and choose the kind of charter school they would like,” Church says of the district.

Even though charter schools are public and districts are supposed to support them, they generally don’t, he says. “They don’t want them because they still view them as both competition and as diverting resources from their schools.”

Richland 2 turned aside Hope Academy even as the district’s enrollment runneth over. This year Richland 2 grew by nearly 750 students, roughly one full-on elementary school.

“No, we don’t have official projections for next year,” Riley says. But, she says of another potential 750-student increase, “it wouldn’t be unusual.”

The district is building or planning to construct one middle, one high and four elementary schools.

Hope Academy would accommodate up to 400 elementary-age students, Letts says.

Richland 2 board meeting minutes say the members of the elected body denied the proposed charter school because the application for it did not show evidence of economic soundness, sufficient community support or an adequate description of what the curriculum and achievement standards would be, among other reasons.

Not true, Hope Academy supporters counter.

Refuting one of the board’s points, Letts says 400 parents are behind the would-be charter school.

Meanwhile, the meter is running on court costs of the appeal for both sides.

“We’ve got at least $10,000 in legal fees so far and we’re just getting started,” Letts says.

Richland 2 does not have an in-house lawyer and has tapped John Reagle of the Columbia law firm Childs & Halligan to handle the proceedings for the district, Riley says.

How long will the case drag on?

Who can say?

But not long, advocates of the charter school hope, for they are not interested in power and money; but rather, a new way forward for the education of their children.

Reach Ward at (803) 779-5022, ext. 117, or eric@scpolicycouncil.com.

K-12 Local Government