CharterFolk Contributor Kevin Mason – The Charter Promise in the Palmetto State

Good morning, CharterFolk!

This week we have “Carolina in My Mind.”  Today we are pleased to share a contributor column from Kevin Mason, the Executive Director at the Public Charter School Alliance of South Carolina.

Kevin Mason, the Executive Director  at the Public Charter School Alliance of South Carolina

I provide Kevin’s bio below.

Kevin brings a vision of building positive school choices through quality charter schools across South Carolina to the Alliance. Through engagement, building awareness, understanding, and support, he’s confident charter schools can meet the needs of their communities by providing families with public school options. Before taking the role as Executive Director, Kevin provided support as the Director of Communication & Engagement. Since 2017, Kevin has been an active member of the Alliance, volunteering and helping to fulfill his passion for educational options. 

Previously, Kevin worked at a K-12 charter school as the Director of Communication. His responsibilities included internal and external communication, public relations, media relations, marketing, brand awareness, campaigns, and content management for the website and social media accounts. He started his career as a journalist working as a TV news producer for local television stations in Upstate, South Carolina, and Piedmont, North Carolina.

The Charter Promise in the Palmetto State

In 1996, the South Carolina General Assembly and Governor David Beasley worked together to enact the South Carolina Charter Schools Act. Included in the act was legislative intent – a promise – to the children of South Carolina: “It is the intent of the General Assembly to create a legitimate avenue for parents, teachers, and community members to take responsible risks and create new, innovative, and more flexible ways of educating all children within the public school system.”

A year later, three public charter schools opened their doors to students and were joined in 1998 by another three charter schools. However, the promise of parental choice through charter schools started with some uncertainty. Only two of those original six schools operated longer than two years, and none past ten years.

But rather than give up, state government officials and the charter school community worked together to revise the charter school law in 2002, followed by another ten revisions to the act through 2022. Significant policy changes were made in 2002, 2006, 2008, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2016, and 2021 to deliver on that original promise. Today, the charter school movement has entered its most promising era in the Palmetto State.

This school year, ninety-five charter schools serve well over 50,000 students. If all charter schools operated under a single authorizer, their combined enrollment would be the second-largest school district in the state. Only five years ago, the number of students learning in a charter school was just over 35,000 – nearly forty-three percent less than today.

What were the keys to successfully delivering on the promise of charter schools to families in South Carolina? Qualitatively, we believe the people of our state possess an innovative spirit that helps us overcome obstacles, support our communities, and achieve our objectives. This is evident in the compassion we have for our fellow citizens across all areas. This sentiment is beautifully captured in the more well-known of South Carolina’s two official state mottos: “dum spiro spero,” which translates to “While I breathe, I hope.”

But quantitatively, several public policy levers were created in the revisions to the Charter Schools Act and the state budget over many years that have contributed to the significant growth of charter schools in South Carolina.

South Carolina permits a wide variety of school models and operating structures: traditional face-to-face instruction, hybrid, and fully virtual learning environments; new, conversion, and replication schools; single-gender schools, dual enrollment programs, and enrollment preferences for military families when the school is located on a military installation are just some examples. Schools can contract with nonprofit and for-profit education service providers, and a single governing board may oversee multiple schools. The diversity of school models is a strength for the South Carolina charter school community.

Schools have multiple authorizer options to find one that best meets their needs, including traditional school districts, a statewide independent authorizer, and two statewide authorizers affiliated with institutions of higher education. Schools have transferred authorizers for appropriate reasons, and there is legislation pending to clarify this process further without compromising accountability. If choice is a good idea for families – and it is – it is also a good idea for school operators with regard to authorizers.

Charter schools have a broad exemption from state laws and regulations that are not related to the health, safety, and civil rights of students; this allows for operational flexibility and innovation. But charter schools adhere to the same open meetings and open records laws as traditional school districts, must have annual, independent financial audits, and conduct the same background checks for teachers. The balance of flexibility and common-sense protections makes operating a charter school in South Carolina possible for solo or network operators.

The largest policy driver for charter school growth in South Carolina in the next few years will be the historic, equitable funding reform enacted in 2022. Initiated by Governor Henry McMaster and overwhelmingly supported by the South Carolina General Assembly, the new primary funding formula treats charter school students more equitable than ever before. Those schools sponsored by the statewide authorizers receive nearly $10,000 per pupil in state funding, which is at least $1,100 more than five years ago, depending on the school and authorizer.

Schools authorized by local school districts saw increased funding as the K-12 education budget has received an investment of over one billion new recurring dollars. While transportation and facility funding issues still need to be addressed, charter schools have sustainable funding for operations due to the advocacy of the community and the leadership in Columbia.

Every child deserves an education that meets their unique needs, and charter schools in South Carolina are delivering on that premise. The next several years hold much promise for charter schools as more schools open in rural communities, serve adult learners, and bring choice to communities where none existed. This expansion occurs at the same time that high standards for authorizing and accountability are upheld.

The promise of charter schools is soon to be within reach for more students than ever before during the twenty-five-year history in the Palmetto State. The Alliance, the schools, teachers, authorizers, government officials, and families look forward to blazing this path together, so children have access to a quality education that creates opportunities and promises a better and brighter future for all.