Charter schools bill gets House approval

COLUMBIA --- In a show of support for charter schools, the South Carolina House on Wednesday approved a bill meant to increase their numbers statewide without forcing school districts to cough up the money.

The House voted 85-32 on a measure that was designed to provide more money to charter schools organized under the statewide district. They get state and federal, but no local, money. Advocates say they don't have enough to operate and some of the 11 face closure. They called giving the schools more money an issue of fairness.

The measure was touted as a priority of both the House GOP caucus and new Republican state schools chief Mick Zais, who repeatedly said charters are public schools, too.

The difference is they are overseen by a board of parents, teachers and community members, rather than a district board, and are subject to fewer government regulations than traditional public schools.

"This is a strong step forward," Zais said. "At the end of the day, some solution is better than no funding."

The original bill required districts to send local property taxes to charter students within their borders. But district officials said it's unfair to force them to part with more than $20 million amid deep state budget cuts.

On the House floor, lawmakers agreed to a change that leaves the funding to the state, with the amount up to legislators yearly.

"If we say charter schools are important, we should find a way to fund them," said House Minority Leader Harry Ott, D-St. Matthews, explaining his switch to support the amended bill.

Scott Price of the School Boards Association applauded the change, saying districts would have a hard time paying for charters sponsored by the state district.

"We're pleased to see the state has stepped up to meet its responsibility," he said.

The bill gives more options for charters to form, including sponsorship by a university, and allows for boys-only and girls-only schools. South Carolina has become a leader in public single-gender programs, but budget cuts and resulting teacher layoffs have forced some schools to abandon the popular option. Traditional schools must offer co-ed classes in addition to boys-only and girls-only classes.

The bill also requires traditional schools to give charter students access to sports and other extracurricular activities their schools don't offer.

The state has more than 40 charter schools, and those approved by their local school board already get local money. The statewide district was created in 2005 to make the approval process easier for organizers who saw local school boards as hostile.

Less than 20 percent of the statewide district's 9,320 students attend school in a building separate from their home.

Later Wednesday, a House budget-writing committee gave an initial OK to spending up to $25 million on schools in the statewide charter, with schools that have buildings getting more per student than virtual ones.

It increases their extra per-student allotment from the $700 each now to $1,700 for each online student and $3,250 for the other students.


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