A recent guest column, “Public schools outperform charter schools,” by Rock Hill school board member Jane Sharp centered on public charter schools. In one column, it is difficult to cover a topic as complicated as 5,000 public charter schools across 43 states. Dr. Sharp should not be expected to present all aspects of the subject.
Likewise, in one article, I cannot capture the full meaning and purpose of a movement that includes 24,000 South Carolina public school students in 60 public charter schools. However, I think that additional information about public charter schools might help to explain some of the questions raised in her guest column.
Public charter schools are very much public. Such schools adhere to federal laws regarding public education. The degree to which public charter schools are required to adhere to state laws and regulations differ from state to state because state public charter school laws differ.
In South Carolina, public charter schools are exempt from only a couple of regulations, the most important one being that they are not required to provide student transportation. The reason is because the state did not want to pay for it, so the state could not require it. The public charter school community would welcome funding for transportation.
All public schools in South Carolina, traditional, magnet, and charter, could benefit from significantly more freedom from regulation. Doing so would increase innovation in learning for the entire state.
Comparisons between public charter schools and traditional public schools are difficult to make. For example, over the years, some other states have converted failing traditional public schools into public charter schools in an effort to jump-start improvements. Taking the bottom performing two percent of all traditional public schools in an entire state and relabeling them as public charter schools is going to make future apple to apple comparisons between those public charter schools and traditional public schools invalid.
Likewise, in almost all states, funding for public charter schools is not as high as funding for traditional public schools. Nowhere is this more the case than in South Carolina.
Public school funding in this state is complex. Depending on the study, the average annual per pupil funding for traditional public schools in South Carolina is somewhere between $11,000 and $12,000. Some public charter schools are opened and operated by traditional public school districts, such as in Greenville and Charleston. Some public charter schools are authorized by the statewide public school district.
For those schools of the South Carolina Public Charter School District, the funding is much lower than for traditional public schools. York Preparatory Academy (YPA), which is a state-wide authorized public charter school in Rock Hill, operates on about $7,200 annually in total funding per student.
That is the lowest funding level of any public school district in the state and in the bottom two percent nationally. This is the case because YPA does not receive local funding. When a child attends YPA, the local funding for that student stays in the local traditional public school district.
When public charter schools started in South Carolina, the funding disparity was actually much greater. Funding for the statewide public charter schools has improved significantly over the past four years, and the public charter school community is appreciative of legislative efforts to address this problem, but the funding chasm can make for unfair comparisons with traditional public education. The recent education funding proposals by the governor include an increase for the schools of the Public Charter School District. I am confident that, given the obvious problems with the current funding levels, the governor’s budget will receive serious consideration.
Having said all that, it is still important to hold public charter schools accountable despite funding inequities. In traditional public education, when a public school is failing, it often gets more money. When a public charter school fails, it is closed.
In this spirit, YPA embraces scrutiny. For the last state-issued report card, YPA was labeled as a “B” school, in the category of “performance exceeds the state’s expectations.” Regarding state standardized testing, many YPA student test scores were excellent. A few were average. A couple showed some modest challenges.
It is difficult to find any public school that has no areas that warrant academic attention. Given the newness of the school, our academic results are a respectable achievement, but we are nowhere near satisfied. As a result, we are working diligently to further enhance our learning climate and to expand our academic programs, especially our high school options for high-achieving students, which will be greatly enhanced beginning in the fall. Furthermore, we have worked hard to earn our initial accreditation with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Council on Accreditation (AdvancED).
In addition, YPA is holding students accountable to high behavior standards. As a school with roughly 1,300 students in grades kindergarten through 11 (12th grade being added next year), the student code of conduct is an important aspect of the school. Like all public charter schools in South Carolina, YPA offers open enrollment as space permits. There are no aptitude qualifications for the students or admission formulas. We are a cross-section of our community, but staying at YPA requires that students adhere to a code of conduct that we enforce fairly. Any other public school in the state is free to do the same, but YPA has decided to make this a priority.
How is YPA realizing success on such a low funding level? It is not easy. Wonderful parent involvement helps tremendously. Our parents constantly demonstrate the true meaning of a community public school.
Good hiring is important, and careful budgeting comes in handy. In contrast to most public charter schools, we do have a few buses that we pay for through our operational money, and we are extremely proud of our campus facility, but compared with traditional public education, a greater percentage of our funding goes directly to the classroom for learning.
The Public Charter School District has one full-time employee in the district office for every 800 students in its schools. A typical public school district in South Carolina has one employee in the district office for every 150 students in its schools. Again, any public school system in the state is free to modify their staffing priorities, but YPA makes the classroom the highest funding priority.
However, part of the real value of YPA can only be appreciated by visiting the campus and getting to know us. Our annual “State of the School Address” is open to the public. That will be held on Tuesday, Feb. 11, starting at 7 p.m. It will provide a comprehensive review of the school. Our new student application deadline for the 2014-2015 school year is Saturday, Feb. 15, with our lottery being held on Friday, Feb. 28. Between now and Feb. 15, we will hold open houses, give tours and be available to answer any questions.
We are proud members of the public school community. Traditional public school personnel and public charter school personnel share many goals and many concerns. Parent choice programs in public education are now a permanent part of our culture. Public educators as a whole stand more to gain in working together than not, but more importantly, we are obligated by ethical standards to work together for the betterment of our community because that is why we, as public educators, are here.
There are some who would disparage public education in a public forum. I am not one of those people. I work in public education with pride. Instead of ongoing battles across the newspaper opinion page, let’s just concentrate on improving public education wherever we find it in South Carolina. I think that we can all agree that the state could use the help.
Our nation as a whole will rise or fall on the performance of our public schools, all of them.
Clay Eaton is the Managing Director of York Preparatory Academy.