COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - There’s a new option for public charter schools in South Carolina – and it has many of them jumping ship.
Charter schools, formed as an alternative to public education, have been a part of our state education system for the better part of a decade. The Public Charter School District is 10 years old and has held the only statewide authorizer position in South Carolina for a decade.
But in May 2017, the Charter Institute at Erskine emerged on the scene. For the 2018-2019 school year, ten schools made the choice to transfer from PCSDSC to Erskine. That mass exodus has prompted questions from lawmakers.
To the PCSDSC, they want to know: why did all of those schools transfer? And to Erskine, they’re asking: do you have the capacity to handle all those schools in your first year?
“There's a lot of speculation around the cause of that,” Superintendent of PCSDSC, Elliot Smalley said. “I can't speak for these schools. It is the schools that make that decision.”
Smalley said low performance and a higher focus on accountability was the reason those 10 schools moved over to Erskine from his authorizer – another term for “district.”
Again, before Erskine came on the scene, the Public Charter School District was the only statewide authorizer in South Carolina.
“When you have a multitude of authorizers, it's a double-edged sword,” Smalley said. “It can create an environment where a school who's feeling this accountability pressure can just escape that accountability and go to a more lenient authorizer."
He said the phenomenon is called “authorizer hopping.” And he said it’s something happening nationwide. Right now, PCSD has 34 total schools. It closed five schools in the last three years, citing low performance. Ten transferred to Erskine during the past school year.
Even with what looks like a large exodus, Smalley says he's seen growth since taking over three years ago.
"We have student growth in our district,” Smalley said. “We're seeing growth in other ways, in high quality schools with hundreds on their wait list.”
Erskine denies any instance of authorizer hopping. They say the schools came to them because of a lack of support from the PCSDSC. It’s a fact that Cameron Runyan, the CEO of the Charter Institute at Erskine told WIS he plans to present to lawmakers during these hearings.
"They want to know why did all these schools transfer? Why did they want to transfer? And that is a very good, valid and fair question,” said Runyan.
Erskine, in its first year, has 13 schools and almost 10,000 students. Seven more schools will be chartered next year. Runyan describes some schools as “bursting at the seams.”
"People are excited to be here,” he said. “Because how often in life do you get to build something brand new like this especially in a field like education? It just doesn't happen."
The first hearing in front of an ad hoc legislative committee was a couple weeks ago. The next hearing is Tuesday at 1 p.m., when lawmakers will hear from school leaders from the districts.