In South Carolina, charter schools continue to spread into new counties

June 04, 2017

The Post and Courier
June 4, 2017

GOOSE CREEK — Anyone looking for evidence of the growing spread of charter schools could begin their search here.

As Berkeley County struggles to meet the demands of its exploding population, some county leaders believe they have a new solution for their overcrowded schools.

And it has nothing to do with the school district.

The Berkeley Charter Education Association, a nonprofit board that formed in January, is behind the county’s first charter school, set to open its doors in August.

The Mevers School of Excellence, a tuition-free public charter school, is being built on a 10-acre tract on a barren stretch of Henry Brown Boulevard that Goose Creek Mayor Mike Heitzler expects to become a hub of activity after the road is widened in the coming years.

The nearly 70,000-square-foot school will initially house 661 students in kindergarten through sixth grade, with seventh grade added next year and eighth, the year after. It will top out at 1,145 students under the leadership of principal John Spagnolia, who spent much of his 40 years in education in Berkeley County.

“Our goal for Berkeley County is to open as many schools as possible to alleviate overcrowding and to provide an alternative to the regular public schools,” said Stewart Weinberg, chairman of the association's board and a retired superintendent who served in several states.

It seems that residents are also ready for an option. In the weeks since enrollment opened in early February, more than 1,500 students have applied to attend, necessitating a lottery and waiting lists.

“I figured we didn’t have anything to lose,” said Hanahan resident Michele Smith, whose son, Caleb, was offered a seat in one of seven kindergarten classes. “If it turns out to be a mistake, we can always put him in the school he’s zoned to attend.”

A national trend

Charter schools are privately run, publicly funded schools, often with a theme, according to the South Carolina Public Charter School District. They cannot have admissions criteria other than residency, and they operate in South Carolina on 10-year contracts called “charters.”

Charter schools were started in Minnesota in 1992. Within five years, there were more than 700 in 25 states.

Their popularity could continue to rise, particularly since new U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is a school choice supporter who has spent much of her career backing for-profit charter schools.

In Berkeley County, Mevers will be managed by the for-profit Charter Schools USA. Based in Florida, the company manages more than 84 schools in eight states whose budgets total $300 million annually, according to Charter Schools USA. The company takes up to 15 percent of each school's revenue in management fees.

For the first five years Mevers is open, it will pay about five percent of its revenue to Charter Schools USA, Weinberg said. 

Charter opponents say the schools drain resources from their public counterparts and sometimes use questionable teaching practices that focus on standardized testing. The managing companies often skimp on education costs in an effort to turn a profit, critics say.

But those critics have not slowed the spread of new charters, at least not by much.

South Carolina’s State Charter School Law, first enacted in 1996, allows charters to be approved by a traditional school district, an institution of higher education or the South Carolina Public Charter School District, which was created in 2006 and now serves more than 22,000 students at 35 schools statewide, including four in Charleston County.

Mevers is part of the statewide district. 

'Without the red tape'

During the 2016-17 school year, there were 71 charters statewide, according to the state Department of Education.

Charleston County School District has approved nine in addition to the four that are part of the state district; Horry County Schools has five total; and the Columbia area has 11. Berkeley and Dorchester have none.

Mevers’ governing group is an eight-member panel that includes Hanahan Mayor Minnie Newman; state Rep. Samuel Rivers, R-Goose Creek; Berkeley County Chief Deputy Mike Cochran; former county supervisor and highway commissioner Jim Rozier; interim Berkeley School District lawyer Josh Whitley, and business leaders Sandy Hightower and Brad Davis. In May 2018, the board’s makeup will change to include half who are parents or school staff.

“In this area almost every school is overcrowded,” Weinberg said. “That was one of the keys for us to do this. It’s been reported that Berkeley County has to probably build a couple new schools every year just to keep up with the houses that are being built. We are able to put a school up in nine months without the bureaucratic red tape that regular school districts have.”

In 2012, Berkeley County voters supported a bid by the school district to issue $198 million in general obligation bonds to build and renovate schools to handle the hordes of students moving into the county — and that was three years before Volvo announced plans to build a $500 million plant that could eventually employ as many as 4,000 people.

Five years later, the district still has two schools to build as part of that program, both expected to open in time for the 2018-19 school year: Bowen’s Corner Elementary on Williams Lane in Hanahan, and Foxbank Elementary, named for the Moncks Corner community where it will be built. Mevers lies midway between the two, which are about 14 miles apart.

Asked about the impact of the charter, the Berkeley School District issued a statement Wednesday that said it “has established a positive relationship with Mevers School of Excellence and officials have met with school leaders to determine opportunities for support. The vision of the BCSD is to empower all students for success. We are all partners in educating the children of Berkeley County.”

Mevers is the first in the state to be managed by Charter Schools USA, which uses data-driven instruction, incorporates music, art and sciences, and pays teachers based on performance. Students wear uniforms bought from an approved vendor.

“I was really impressed by things like individualized instruction,” Weinberg said. “They teach toward the students’ strengths and remedy the weaknesses and do it in an environment that really believes in professional development for its staff.”

Parental involvement is also required.

“There are no buses so parents have to bring them,” Spagnolia said. “And surveys I’ve seen show that when parents bring their children to school, they seem to really accept the idea of getting involved.”

The school will be funded mostly by per-pupil allotments from the state Legislature, and a “major donation” from the man for whom the school is named, Sonny Mevers. Mevers, a lifelong Charleston resident, wanted to start a school to prepare students for college and careers, and give them the knowledge and skills to be leaders.

“We really have to stretch our budget,” Weinberg said. “It’s fine to do PTA or PTO fundraising, but that’s minuscule compared to what it takes to run a school.”

The board also will take out a loan from Red Apple Development, a sister company to Charter Schools USA, to pay for the building, but Red Apple will own the land, Weinberg said.

“We get nothing from Berkeley County, but we have 661 students and they’re mostly from Berkeley County, so Berkeley County will not be receiving the funds for those students,” Weinberg said.

District officials agreed that student enrollment in charter schools could impact the district financially, especially as the founding board plans to open more schools over the next few years.

The district's ultimate financial impact will hinge on the growth of charter schools and the number of students they serve — and that's an unknown at this point.

The Berkeley Charter Education Association's second application, for a charter at Cane Bay in the booming Carnes Crossroads area, was denied by the state Public Charter Schools in April and is under appeal.

“The board felt that it was too much work for us to open one school and prepare for another, which is really bogus,” Weinberg said.

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