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A new school privatization battle unfolding in Charleston

People in one of the horse-drawn carriages ride past the facade of the famous St. Philip's Church, located in the French Quarter of Charleston, S.C. (iStock)

Charleston County School District, the second-largest district in South Carolina with about 50,000 students, has become a testing ground for the school privatization movement — and 2022 is bringing a new battle.

South Carolina’s schools have long been among the worst-performing in the country, “saddled with a legacy of apathy and low expectations” that leave students “unprepared for the world that awaits them,” according to a 2018 Post and Courier investigation.

School choice — including charter schools, private academics, specialized magnet schools and other options — has siphoned the best-performing students from struggling schools “while children with the fewest resources get marooned in failing institutions,” the newspaper said.

“North Charleston High loses more than half the students in its attendance zone to a host of magnet, charter and private schools, leaving behind a core of poor Black students,” said the investigation by a team of reporters including the award-winning Paul Bowers, who wrote the piece below.

Since desegregation efforts decades ago, the Charleston district has returned to de facto segregation at many of its schools, accelerated by a boom of magnet schools in the 1990s and early 2000s. It currently sponsors nine public charter schools and two public-private partnership schools, in addition to multiple schools within the county sponsored by statewide authorizers.

On Monday, the school board is scheduled to vote on a proposal that would allow the takeover of 23 lower-performing schools in low-income and majority-Black neighborhoods by an “innovation management organization,” which would be allowed under law to hire some of its teachers without a state teaching license.

In this post, Bowers looks at what Charleston’s public schools are up against. A parent of three public school children in North Charleston, he was the Post and Courier’s education reporter from 2016 to 2019 and was part of a team that won the 2018 Eddie Prize from the Education Writers Association. Find him on Twitter at @Paul_Bowers and read his work at brutalsouth.substack.com.

Former lobbyist details how privatizers are trying to end public education

By Paul Bowers

Every few years, South Carolina becomes a battleground for school privatization. It looks like 2022 is going to be one of those years.

Back in the 2000s, the New York real estate investor Howard Rich backed a series of South Carolina candidates pushing school vouchers, which would funnel public education funds into private schools. More recently, we have seen efforts by Gov. Henry McMaster and the state legislature to create a Tennessee-style “turnaround district,” to deregulate for-profit online charter schools via authorizer shopping, and to divert federal covid-19 relief funds from public schools to private schools. Teachers and parents have had to fight these advances tooth and nail and have so far kept most of the damage at bay.

Lately it seems like the tip of the spear for privatization efforts in South Carolina is the Charleston County School District, a starkly segregated and unequal district anchored by a world-renowned tourist destination. The Charleston County School Board is scheduled to vote Jan. 10 on a proposal called “Reimagine Schools” that would allow a private third party to make decisions at 23 predominantly Black schools. I thought now would be a good moment to revisit the history of school board power struggles and dark-money campaigns in Charleston County.

Efforts to privatize the governance of public schools have been supported by, among others, two South Carolina billionaires — Anita Zucker, head of a chemical manufacturer, and Ben Navarro, chief of a debt collection agency. Sometimes working in tandem, sometimes independently, Zucker and Navarro tend to promote charter schools and private takeovers of public schools.

Getting education reform right

Zucker and her advocacy organization, the Tri-County Cradle to Career Collaborative, were involved in a 2015-2016 effort to create a “turnaround district” at the state level, modeled after failed efforts in Tennessee, Louisiana and Michigan. The proposal involved lumping the state’s lowest-performing schools into a new district and bringing in third-party operators to manage them. Similar bills were introduced in Georgia and North Carolina around the same time, but the idea never received serious discussion in the South Carolina Statehouse.

Navarro is known nationally for his failed 2018 bid to buy the Carolina Panthers team in the National Football League. In the financial world, he is known for his Sherman Financial Group, a privately owned firm that filed more lawsuits against defaulted credit-card debtors than others in the industry during covid-19 lockdowns, according to a recent Wall Street Journal investigation.

In the arena of education, Navarro is known for his private Meeting Street Schools, which are sometimes lauded as a model for improving the standardized test scores of low-income students from at-risk communities. Since 2014, Meeting Street Schools has entered unique public-private partnerships with South Carolina public school districts, starting with the takeover of two elementary schools in North Charleston.

With a boost of private funding, the schools invest in wraparound services for students and their families, offer additional psychological support, place two teachers in each classroom, and operate on an extended school day and academic calendar. Those practices have a proven track record of success, but most schools in South Carolina lack the funding to carry them out.

Meeting Street Schools also heavily recruit staff from Teach for America and the KIPP charter network, and they preach the trendy mid-2010s gospel of “grit” — in fact, the disciplinary model is so gritty that one Meeting Street-run elementary school suspended one-quarter of its students in a single school year. Before opening the schools under new management, Navarro sought and received a special exemption from the state’s employment protections for teachers. As a result, Meeting Street principals can hire and fire teachers at will.

Navarro is also closely associated with the Charleston Coalition for Kids, a dark-money group that emerged in 2018 and immediately outspent all other donors combined on advertising for a slate of school board candidates.

Much of the coalition’s funding and spending is hidden from public view thanks to state election law and the group’s nonprofit status, but FCC records reveal it spent at least $235,000 on TV commercials alone in the run-up to the 2018 school board election — four-and-a-half times what all of the candidates combined raised for their own campaigns. (Local activists estimated the coalition’s spending on Facebook ads, billboards, and other media might have cost additional hundreds of thousands of dollars.)

The coalition spent big on the school board election again in 2020, investing $306,000 on TV commercials, including attack ads against two Black incumbents, the records show. Today six of the nine sitting Charleston County School Board members have received backing from the coalition.

A number of national organizations have taken an interest in Charleston school politics as well, including 50CAN (formerly StudentsFirst) and the Broad Foundation. After failing to create a statewide turnaround district in 2016, the 50CAN affiliate SouthCarolinaCAN shifted its focus to the local level — specifically to Charleston County. When I interviewed then-executive director Bradford Swann in December 2016, he said his organization would be focused on “grass-roots organizing” via a five-month fellowship program for parents.

The result was Charleston RISE, a parent advocacy group that also operates a parent help hotline. Billboards advertising its services have appeared all over the county, particularly in low-income neighborhoods. Charleston RISE trainees were among the founding members of the Charleston Coalition for Kids when it launched in 2018. Some RISE members said they helped vet school board candidates for the coalition.

Currently the Charleston County School Board is deciding how to spend its share of the covid-19 recovery funds provided under the American Recovery Act’s ESSER III program. Multiple local nonprofits submitted proposals on how to spend the money, but only one has gotten a public hearing.

On Monday, Jan. 10, the school board will vote on a proposal called Reimagine Schools that would target 23 low-performing schools in low-income and majority-Black parts of the county. Leaning on a “Schools of Innovation” law recently expanded by the state legislature, the proposal would authorize a takeover of individual schools by an unidentified “innovation management organization.” The Schools of Innovation law also allows a school to hire up to 25 percent of its teachers in certain subject areas without a state teaching license.

The organization that proposed the Reimagine Schools plan is the Coastal Community Foundation, a relative newcomer to school board lobbying. The fund and its CEO, Darrin Goss Sr., have promoted the Meeting Street Schools public-private partnership model, which exempts them from “bureaucratic” regulations. (Complicating matters further, the Coastal Community Fund also administers an investigative fund and Education Lab for the local daily newspaper, the Post and Courier.)

The nine-member school board voted in December to schedule the Jan. 10 meeting on the Reimagine Schools proposal — without holding any community input sessions. All six members who voted to approve for the proposal had been endorsed by the Charleston Coalition for Kids.

Whatever the Charleston County School Board decides, the privatization push will continue in parallel at the state level. The state superintendent of education post is up for grabs this fall, and the first candidate to announce her run was Ellen Weaver, a charter school advocate with the conservative Palmetto Promise Institute. A central proposal in her platform is the creation of education scholarship accounts, a modified private school voucher program.

Sound familiar? If at first they don’t succeed, they give it a new name and try again.

(Correction: Fixing name of Coastal Community Foundation and clarifying council vote on proposal)

Here’s a response from Abigail Darlington: senior communications officer for the Coastal Community Foundation:

“Reimagine Schools is about collecting community input. Every potential school model and possible outcome that is in the Reimagine Schools proposal is already an option that any of these schools can pursue today. What this proposal aims to do is ensure that the district has a proactive process for community engagement, so that any potential changes are directed first and foremost by the community that is most affected, and secondly to ensure that those decisions are made with consideration of the other schools in that community’s feeder pattern.... We believe very strongly in doing things with the community. If a community commission decides one or all of its schools need no changes whatsoever, then that is a perfectly legitimate outcome of Reimagine Schools.”

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