COLUMBIA — The superintendent of South Carolina's statewide charter school district asked legislators Tuesday for an additional $12 million just to keep up with his growing student population and some legal tweaks to improve his district's performance.
Wayne Brazell said he'd like $9.5 million on top of that, to also increase per-pupil spending by $500, but his first priority is the $12 million. Without it, he said, his schools could be in serious financial trouble.
“We'd have to cap growth,” he told a House panel that will draft the 2013-14 state budget.
Brazell leads charter schools that choose to organize under the statewide district and therefore get no money from local property taxes. The five-year-old district's online schools receive $3,712 per student from the state, while its “brick-and-mortar” schools receive $5,262 per student.
Charter schools are public schools that must meet all state and federal standards but receive flexibility and are governed by a board of parents, educators and community leaders. Charter schools that organize under their local elected school board get local property taxes. But the statewide district was created because some local boards were hostile to their creation.
Ten new schools are approved to open in the statewide district this fall, though several may not make it. Between those that do open and growth in current schools, Brazell expects an additional 3,800 students next school year. Currently, 11,600 students attend the district's 18 schools – six of them fully online.
Brazell attributed the district's poor performance grade to dropouts, particularly in the online high schools.
The district received a D overall on its report card. Individually, three schools received an A, two received a B, two received a C and four received an F. Six others were too new to get an accountability grade. Additionally, the charter for a school that received a D is being revoked, amid allegations of fraudulent diplomas and financial discrepancies.
No virtual school received higher than a C.
A total of 14,000 students were enrolled in online schools at some point last school year, but the year closed with 8,000, Brazell said.
“Many are already considered dropouts when they transfer in,” he said. “They have almost no chance of graduating on time.”
He said some local school districts are using his online schools as a de facto alternative school, giving students the option of expulsion or enrolling in one of his district's schools. That way, they aren't reflected in the home district's graduation rate.
Brazell said that, as public schools, his schools can't turn down students for enrollment unless they've already been expelled elsewhere.
Rep. Kenny Bingham, the panel's chairman, said something needs to change.
“What I'm not in favor of is charter schools becoming a dumping ground for all at-risk students,” said Bingham, R-Cayce. The poor performance could make future funding of the schools a problem, he added.
Brazell said he's seeking flexibility to not count students for graduation purposes who transfer in and then leave in less than 30 or 45 days. Some stay less than a week, he said.
“I can empathize with schools who are trying to find something that could work for these students,” he said. However, “virtual schools are just not the place for at-risk students.”
Rep. Rita Allison agreed, saying that success in online schools requires self-motivation.
Brazell also wants legislators to change state law to allow his district to more quickly force closure when needed.
Mary L. Dinkins Charter School in Bishopville should have closed last year, he said. The district's board voted to revoke its charter last spring, but the Administrative Law Court allowed it to remain open until a final hearing. Meanwhile, there's very little oversight, Brazell said.
Six other charter schools in the statewide district are on probation – two for not meeting the needs of students with disabilities, three for abysmal academic performance, and a sixth for both poor performance and financial problems. If they don't improve, their charters could be revoked next year, Brazell said.
He said the probationary status shows the district is holding schools accountable.
“We're living up to our promise,” he said. “I hate it. I wish we didn't have six on probation, but we're sending a clear message.”