S.C. public schools offer more options

Since enrollment bill's defeat

COLUMBIA -- Something unexpected happened to the State Education Department after the defeat of a bill that would have allowed students to apply to any public school in the state regardless of where they live.

Officials said the interest among parents and educators in providing a range of electives and specialized programs for students increased.

"I do think this is an idea whose time has come," said State Education Superintendent Jim Rex. "We have a lot of parents and children who deserve and need more choices in public schools now."

Rex plans to push, again, this legislative session for districts to allow parents more flexibility to choose which school their child should attend.

He again will face critics including Gov. Mark Sanford who say the proposal is too limited and should allow students to attend private schools.

Critics helped defeat the proposal last year partly because Rex wanted to require school districts to open their doors to any student, even those who were supposed to attend other districts.

"We simply do not have the capacity, especially in the higher performing schools, to serve the children in the low performing schools," said Ashley Landess, vice president for public affairs for the S.C. Policy Council.

Leaders of growing districts also were concerned they wouldn't have enough room to accept all the students who might want to attend the already overcrowded schools.

Rex has revised his plan to focus primarily on encouraging schools to establish magnet programs and allow students to choose from schools within district lines.

The goal help districts create the specialized programs that would address students' different learning styles and help them excel in school.

The superintendent repeatedly has used Richland 2's Choice program as an example of how his proposal could work.

Schools across the state offer single-gender, charter and magnet programs, but none is as comprehensive as Richland 2's.

Rex has reorganized the state Education Department, creating a Public School Choice office and hiring a Richland 2 teacher to head a single-gender initiative.

In the next month, he expects to hire someone to lead a Montessori school initiative.

Montessori schools focus on independent learning through hands-on lessons. Students are separated into multi-age classes, rather than by traditional grade levels, and work at their own pace.

Last year, the Legislature approved Rex's proposal, but Sanford vetoed it, saying it inhibited, rather than expanded, school choice. The Legislature didn't have enough votes to overturn the veto.

As Rex gears up for next year's session, he's hoping the revised plan will garner state support.

Under his plan:

nDistricts would spend the first year designing a school choice program. Administrators would be required to survey parents for feedback on the types of programs they would like to see in the schools.

nIn the second year, schools would be required to adopt a plan and offer a minimum of three magnet programs, charter schools or Montessori programs. Schools would pay for the programs.

nIn the following years, each district would be expected to expand its offerings.

nDistricts would not be required but would be allowed to accept students across district lines.

Rex said he has spoken with Sanford about his revised plan.

Sanford's spokesman Joel Sawyer said Sanford would welcome open enrollment reform. He said parents' choices in last year's proposal were severely limited because schools don't have the space to accept students from outside their lines.

"We are certainly hopeful that we can find some middle ground on that," Sawyer said.

Landess warned that Rex's plan doesn't offer realistic choices and will continue to fall short so long as it doesn't include private schools as an option.

Rex repeatedly has said public dollars should not be used for private schools. He acknowledged capacity and transportation as two obstacles for school choice within the public system.

But Rex said private schools are not required by law to release building capacity information, making it hard to tell whether private schools have the room to accept students from public schools.

Rex points to Richland 2's Choice program, which allows parents to send students to any school in the district and offers 15 magnet programs.

The 16-year-old program has been hailed as a success by parents and educators. Administrators recently proposed adding six more magnet programs, including one that would serve students who have been held back a grade and one for students interested in sports medicine and health science careers.

"They have been pioneers," Rex said. "It's great to have a school district like theirs that I can point to when parents ask, 'What would a high-choice district look like?"'

The State Education Department has scheduled a Dec. 5 conference on public school choice for educators and lawmakers.

"I think we can put to rest some of the concerns," Rex said.

"This year, I feel confident."

Reach Copeland at (803) 771-8485.