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S.C. Requires Charters To Reflect Racial Makeup of District

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In approving legislation that allows charter schools, South Carolina added a twist.

The new law says that the racial composition of enrollment at charter schools must match, within 10 percent, the makeup of the district where the school is located.

North Carolina lawmakers last month passed a charter school bill requiring the new schools to "reasonably reflect" the racial makeup of the surrounding community. But no state has spelled out racial requirements as strictly as the South Carolina law.

The racial-balance amendment was not in the bill's original language. The amendment, sponsored by Rep. David A. Wright, the Republican vice chairman of the House education committee, was attached about a week before the vote, according to state education officials.

Gov. David M. Beasley, a Republican, signed the South Carolina measure on June 18.

Since then, North Carolina has become the 26th state, including the District of Columbia, to allow local districts to form schools that agree to meet performance measures in exchange for freedom from many state and local regulations.

In South Carolina, the state education department supported the bill and the racial-balance amendment, said Karen Horne, an aide to Barbara Stock Neilsen, the state schools chief.

"We wanted to make sure that there were no homogeneous schools and that it was a fair and open process for all schoolchildren," Ms. Horne said.

Hitting the Magic Number

But charter school organizers in the state said they may have to seek out minority students in order to comply with the law.

On Hilton Head Island, for example, only 30 percent of students are black, while the racial makeup of the entire Beaufort County district, which includes Hilton Head, is split almost evenly along racial lines, according to the education department.

That has created problems for a proposed charter school on the island. Nancy Schneider, a spokeswoman for the planned Lighthouse Charter School, told the Charleston Post and Courier that she would do "whatever it takes" to enroll minority students.

"But if we don't hit the magic number, they'll close us," Ms. Schneider told the newspaper.

Linda Brown, a charter school expert at the Boston-based Pioneer Institute for Public Policy Research, said that all charter schools should seek to reflect their districts' racial makeup.

Alex Medler, a policy analyst for the Denver-based Education Commission of the States, added that currently more blacks and Hispanics are enrolled in Colorado's charter schools than in the state's public schools as a whole.

"The racial balance has a lot to do with the individual school," he said.

But Ted Kolderie, a prominent charter school observer at the Center for Policy Studies in St. Paul, Minn., said South Carolina's mandate could do more harm than good.

"They may have inadvertently affected the schools that were designed to help minorities," he said.

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