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Charter school advocates shifting gears in South Carolina

December 25, 2016 GMT

An anonymous group registered as a company in Washington D.C. poured money into advertisements and mailers in this year’s Charleston County School Board race, possibly foreshadowing a fight over school choice and charter schools.

In a nonpartisan race where no candidate reported more than $7,500 in contributions, the previously unheard-of Charleston Parents for Great Public Schools LLC likely outspent any individual campaign. There was one hint about the provenance: The mailer claimed West Ashley candidate Priscilla Jeffery was a left-wing “extremist” who “supports far-left U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren in opposing school choice.”

Mary Carmichael, executive director of the Charleston-based Public Charter School Alliance of South Carolina, said she fielded a few calls from people accusing her group of funding the ads and mailers. She was baffled; she said the Alliance did nothing of the sort. Finally, she reached out to Jeffery to clear the air.

“To me, it made it very difficult to have some genuine conversations that need to be happening about school choice and charter schools, the real local issues that are going on,” Carmichael said.

If the ads are any forecaster, Charleston County could become a testing ground or a battle ground for charters, semi-independent public schools that get some autonomy from state regulations.

With 10 public charter schools operating already in the district, the largest number of any district in the state, one in 10 Charleston County School District students now attends a charter school, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. And school choice advocates sometimes hold the county up as a place where innovation works, citing examples like the district’s unique partnership with the private Meeting Street Schools as well as its Charleston Charter School for Math and Science.

Jeffery, for her part, really is wary of the public magnet and charter programs that came into fashion in Charleston County over the last decade.

“When I hear ‘school choice,’ I know there’s a lot of kids that don’t have a choice,” Jeffery said in a Nov. 2 candidates’ forum in North Charleston. “They don’t have transportation or whatever, and so it’s unfair. I am not for school choice.”

She still doesn’t know for certain who was behind the mailers. The only listed contact information for the group is a mailbox at a UPS Store on Savannah Highway.

“I sent a Christmas card to that post office box,” Jeffery said. “I said, ‘Let’s sit down. Let’s talk about what it is that I was saying or doing that was so in opposition to what you are proposing.’

“I don’t expect to hear back, but who knows?”

The turnaround idea

In certain pro-charter circles, turnaround school districts were all the rage in the Southeastern U.S. in 2015.

The idea was to hand over control of a state’s lowest-performing schools to for-profit or nonprofit charter management groups, and it seemed to be picking up steam after some initial successes in Tennessee and Louisiana. Lawmakers or advocacy groups were looking to bring similar experiments to Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina. Opponents of the plans feared they would lead to deregulation, privatization or a drain on funds for traditional public schools.

Results were mixed. North Carolina lawmakers created a modest pilot programin June, planning to take over just five low-performing schools. Georgia voters rejected Gov. Nathan Deal’s proposed Opportunity School District in a referendum this November.

In South Carolina, lawmakers never took up the idea for serious debate. Now one of the loudest turnaround district proponents, a lobbying group called SouthCarolinaCAN formerly known as StudentsFirst South Carolina, is putting the turnaround district idea on the back-burner to focus on school accountability measures.

A few things have changed in the charter-school landscape since 2015. After years of federal support for charter schools under the administration of President Barack Obama, the NAACP in October 2016 galvanized opposition by calling for a moratorium on new charter schools, citing instances of de facto segregation, disproportionate expulsion of minority students and a perceived lack of fiscal transparency in charter school operations.

In November, President-elect Donald Trump announced the appointment of Michigan philanthropist Betsy DeVos, a prominent charter school backer, as U.S. Secretary of Education. While some charter advocates welcomed the appointment of an ally in the Department of Education, others were wary of DeVos’ free-market brand of school reform, which has gotten lackluster results — dismal, in some cases — in Detroit public schools.

And in a change that affects all schools, Obama signed the new Every Student Succeeds Act into law in December 2015, rolling back some federal oversight from the Bush-era No Child Left Behind Act and returning control over school assessment to the states.

At California-based StudentsFirst, which merged with the charter advocacy group 50CAN in March after shuttering several state offices, that last bit of news caused a shift in priorities. The group’s Palmetto State branch, renamed SouthCarolinaCAN and claiming 25,000 members, is now focused on holding schools and districts accountable for student achievement.

In particular, according to state Executive Director Bradford Swann, SouthCarolinaCAN wants to make sure S.C. Education Department report cards include a “summative” rating, like an A-through-F or 0-to-100 grade, to show how each school and district stacks up.

Previously the state gave schools overall and growth ratings ranging from “At Risk” to “Excellent,” but the state abandoned those ratings on report cards this year while education leaders and lawmakers hash out a new accountability system. The scale was applied to schools and districts alike, and in some cases — including Charleston County in 2014 — a district could earn an Excellent overall rating while some of its schools languished at the bottom rung. Swann said the new accountability system shouldn’t hand out top marks to any district where a subgroup of students is performing in the lowest possible bracket.

“You’ve got to get the report card right, and you’ve got to come back with some intervention model for the lowest-performing schools in the state,” Swann said. “At the end of the day, we cannot have schools that shortchange students for five years or do that indefinitely.”

New state testing and accountability measures will be the foundation for any changes going forward, Swann said. And while the turnaround district idea is no longer at the top of SouthCarolinaCAN’s priority list, Swann applauded State Education Superintendent Molly Spearman for taking over two perennially struggling schools in Florence County this year, exercising a rarely used authority under existing accountability laws.

“I wish the superintendent the best of luck in these two schools, but at the end of the day we’re going to need a more robust tool kit,” Swann said.

Teacher advocacy groups have spoken out against letter grades for schools in recent S.C. Education Oversight Committee meetings, saying they could unfairly stigmatize certain students, schools or counties.

The S.C. School Boards Association, which went toe to toe with Swann’s group on turnaround school districts, is also pushing back against summative grades for schools. Director of Governmental Relations Debbie Elmore said she favors a “dashboard” model, like one the Charleston County School District will debut in 2017, that could show how well a school performs on a variety of measures, from test performance to student attendance rates to school climate as measured by parent surveys.

“Because we’re diversifying the factors that we use to rate schools, it becomes difficult to take all of the different factors and try to come up with a summative rating,” Elmore said. “If you try to come up with a metric that somehow jumbles them all together, you’re going to be right back where we were.”

New priorities

While StudentsFirst focused its efforts on state-level lobbying, the merger with 50CAN brought an emphasis on “grassroots organizing,” Swann said.

“When I went to work for StudentsFirst in 2012, it was all about how big can your organization be ... At any time, you could fill the halls of a state capital with angry parents,” Swann said. “Now that I’ve been in it, time and time again, one very authentic messenger from a community most impacted by legislation, that one voice can be stronger than 10 or 30 voices from people that aren’t the most impacted.”

To that end, Swann said SouthCarolinaCAN is developing a five-month fellowship program for parents, providing parents with information about their school systems’ performance, about what charter school are, and about how to advocate for their children. The first class of fellows will likely be in Charleston, he said.

“There’s no other city where you can go from one bridge to another and have the best school in the state separated from one of the most struggling schools,” Swann said.

StudentsFirst has poured almost $30,000 into state-level party funds and campaigns since 2013. Swann declined to comment on whether the organization was involved in the November ads and mailers about the Charleston County School Board race.

Carmichael and the Public Charter School Alliance of South Carolina have set their sights on other goals as the 2017 legislative session heats up. In some cases, she said charter schools are simply fighting to get their share of state funds, which are supposed to be allotted according to a per-pupil formula. She said charters could also use help from the state in securing facilities for their schools.

Under current funding laws, the state does not provide transportation for charter schools, leaving them to fund their own busing programs or require families to figure it out for themselves. The latter option is difficult for low-income families, Carmichael said.

At the Charleston Charter School for Math and Science, which closely reflects the county’s economic and racial diversity, Carmichael said the school spends about $330,000 a year on busing.

“You could have several more teachers for that money,” Carmichael said. “They made a conscious decision to do it so they would be able to have a diverse population.”