SC senators advance ‘Charter School Accountability Act’

Some state lawmakers are looking to put more safeguards in place to ensure South Carolina’s public charter schools are held accountable to serve their students.
Published: Apr. 3, 2023 at 7:00 PM EDT|Updated: Apr. 3, 2023 at 10:37 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WCSC) - Some state lawmakers are looking to put more safeguards in place to ensure South Carolina’s public charter schools are held accountable to serve their students.

On Monday, a Senate subcommittee advanced S.126, called the “Charter School Accountability Act,” up to the full Senate Education Committee, which will be able to consider sending it to the Senate floor for debate as early as next week.

Sen. Greg Hembree, R-Horry, and the chair of the Senate Education Committee is sponsoring this bill, which he said he and other legislators have been trying to enact for several years.

However, he said COVID-19 knocked it off the priority list, so they are now renewing that push.

It comes at a time when interest in the state’s public charter schools is ballooning.

“I think COVID really opened a lot of parents’ minds and increased their awareness not only of what was happening but what the opportunities were for their children,” Cameron Runyan, superintendent of the Charter Institute at Erskine, said.

Since the 2017-2018 school year, enrollment at statewide charter schools has gone up nearly 70%, with about 42,000 students attending them at the start of this school year.

Statewide charter schools, which any South Carolina student can attend, include about two-thirds of the public charter schools in South Carolina. The rest are run by traditional local school districts and only open to students who live in those districts.

“We anticipate that over the next five years, we will open somewhere on the magnitude of around 40 charter schools across the state,” Runyan said.

That’s in addition to the more than 20 schools the Charter Institute at Erskine already oversees.

It is one of three statewide authorizers, or sponsors, along with the South Carolina Public Charter School District and Limestone Charter Association.

Under the setup of South Carolina’s public charter system, every charter school receives its charter, allowing it to operate, from an authorizer.

Among other duties, authorizers are responsible for holding failing schools accountable.

But Hembree said there have been situations in the past where schools have been under investigation by their authorizer, in the process of having their charters revoked, and then jumped to a different authorizer to stay in operation.

This bill would make that harder to do.

“When there’s tax dollars at play here, you want more accountability, you want more transparency, so the taxpayers have a right to know where their money’s going,” Hembree said.

The bill also aims to add transparency by making audits, applications, and contracts more accessible to the public online.

“In the end, this has got to be about children and taking care of children and making sure that they have the best educational option for them so that they can thrive and flourish in this state, and more accountability’s going to drive outcomes for these children,” Runyan said.

Hembree hopes to get this bill passed in the Senate before this year’s legislative session ends next month. But he does not expect the House would take it up until the start of the new legislative session next January.