Racial Makeup at Issue in S.C. Charter Debate

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The road South Carolina's first charter school has traveled has been a rocky one. And that path points up sticky issues of race that may surface in other states with charter schools. Browse Education Week's 'Web Connection' Your Best On-line Source for Education Products and Services

The Beaufort County school board last month rejected the Lighthouse Charter School's application largely out of concern that the school--set to open on affluent, predominantly white Hilton Head Island--would become a white enclave in a district split almost 50-50 between blacks and whites.

This month, however, the state school board reversed the local district's decision and approved the Lighthouse charter. Meanwhile, Beaufort County school officials are considering challenging the school in court, and South Carolina's attorney general has deemed discriminatory a provision of the state's charter school law that mandates specific racial balance in charter schools.

While many states' charter laws include provisions aimed at encouraging racial diversity, South Carolina's is one of the nation's most prescriptive, experts say. It says charter school enrollment cannot differ from the racial composition of the local school district by more than 10 percent.

The issue of racial balance in schools is always sensitive. For charter schools, designed to operate with less government regulation than other public schools, it resurrects questions of where and how to draw lines. Many charter school critics have argued that such schools will contribute to the resegregation of public schools, while proponents say enrollment figures to date show that charters schools as a whole are racially diverse.

"Everyone who doesn't like charter schools uses this [issue] as a lightning rod," said Eric Premack, the director of the charter school project at the Institute for Education Reform at California State University-Sacramento.

"There are some legitimate concerns," he said. "Depending on how the law is written and implemented, it can be used as a segregationist tool. But the track record to date is very, very strong and positive."

But charter school proponents say that the racial issue is a smokescreen in the Lighthouse case and that district officials rejected the charter proposal because they fear competition and a potential drain on the district budget.

"They don't want us. We're competition," said Jacqueline Rosswurm, one of eight members of the Lighthouse charter committee, all of whom are white. "It's like Avis going to Hertz and saying: 'Will you charter us?'"

Equity, Fiscal Concerns

Charter schools are independent, state-funded public schools run by parents, teachers, or others free of many regulatory constraints that guide regular school districts.

Since 1970, the 15,000-student Beaufort County, S.C., district, like many in the South, has operated under a desegregation pact with the U.S. Department of Justice, said district spokesman John C. Williams.

"We have worked long and hard to rid our school system of those types of racial concerns," Mr. Williams said. "And now we have a school that is threatening to change all that."

Beaufort County officials say that they support charter schools, but that the Lighthouse applicants presented no evidence of efforts to recruit minority students. Under South Carolina's 1996 charter law, the Hilton Head school would have to be at least 40 percent minority; most schools on the island are only 30 percent minority.

While the racial issue was key in the local school board's decision to reject Lighthouse, Mr. Williams acknowledged that officials had other concerns. Since Lighthouse did not present any student lists, the district could not be sure a new 400-student, K-8 charter school wouldn't draw many students currently outside the district in private schools and home-schooling--new students the district hadn't planned on paying for.

In their application, Lighthouse organizers pledged to promote the school to minorities through churches, workplaces, civic organizations, and community groups--meetings Ms. Rosswurm said were starting last week led by a racially mixed recruitment task force. She called the district's request for enrollment lists unreasonable since the school has not yet been established.

"We're actively pursuing a racial composition that will be similar to the district's, and that's been the feeling since the day we started," she said. "Though they say they're not against charter schools, I haven't seen anything that indicates that the district supports them."

Defining Diversity

For its part, the 17-member state board will not comment on why it voted unanimously April 9 to reverse the Beaufort County district's decision until the board files a written ruling later this month, said Jim Foster, a state education department spokesman.

"They said they wanted it made very clear that the racial balance is of 'paramount importance,'" Mr. Foster said.

On April 7, in response to a legislator's query, Attorney General Charles M. Condon, a Republican, issued a nonbinding opinion that the racial-balance provision in South Carolina's charter school law is illegally discriminatory on the basis of race. Black lawmakers had championed the provision. While the measure still stands until it is challenged in court or changed by the legislature, some observers say other states may undergo similar scrutiny.

"This is already part of the debate in states and will continue to be," said Alex Medler, a policy analyst with the Denver-based Education Commission of the States. He noted that charter schools that serve mostly black, Hispanic, or American Indian students already exist.

"If communities of color are creating schools to serve their kids, is that OK? And if affluent white communities are opening schools that serve primarily white kids," he said, "is that different than what the traditional public schools are doing in the area--and even if it's not different, is it OK? The local politics will have to determine whether that's acceptable or not.

"But I wouldn't put all the focus in terms of race relations in public education on charters."

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