Despite $20 Million Pledge, S.C. Charter Plan Dead for Now

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Dennis Bakke, the head of the country’s second-largest charter school manager, may have lost his recent fight to expand charter schools in South Carolina, but his battle is far from over.

Mr. Bakke, the chief executive officer of the Arlington, Va.-based Imagine Schools Inc., had pledged to spend $20 million, which was to be matched with $20 million from the Wachovia Corp., on charter schools in the state if the legislature there passed a bill to allow South Carolina’s first charter school district.

The bold pronouncement added Mr. Bakke to a list of business magnates who have pledged capital for charter schools and other education initiatives—often influencing public policy in the process.

The plan passed the South Carolina House on a 66-41 vote. But it failed to be heard in the Senate before the legislature closed its session June 4.

The initiative, one of Republican Gov. Mark Sanford’s top priorities, would have made it easier for charter schools to be created in a state with what is considered a weak charter school law and an education environment that some say is hostile to the independently run public schools.

"This [decision] is disappointing to the children and parents in South Carolina," said Mr. Bakke. "It’s a little callous for the legislature to turn their backs on them."

Growing Interest

He added that the bill’s failure would make it difficult for Imagine Schools to build charter schools in South Carolina. His company recently acquired Coconut Grove, Fla.-based Chancellor Beacon Academies, the second-largest charter school provider in the country. ("Multimillionaire Buys Major Charter School Manager," June 9, 2004.)

Mr. Bakke’s financial pledge follows similar moves by other business executives wanting to make their mark in education.

Microsoft Corp. Chairman Bill Gates’ foundation has promoted small schools by giving some $630 million to small high schools, including many charter schools, throughout the country since 2000. ("High Schools Nationwide Paring Down," this issue.) Robert Thompson, an asphalt-paving magnate, pledged $200 million to build 15 charter schools in Detroit before a requisite state legislative deal collapsed because of partisan fighting.

More states are forming statewide charter districts, said one expert, Todd Ziebarth. Colorado, Idaho, and Utah passed legislation earlier this year to establish such school districts.

"There is growing interest and action in the whole idea of creating alternative authorizers, as evidenced by these three states," said Mr. Ziebarth, a policy analyst for Augenblick, Palaich and Associates, a Denver-based education policy consulting group.

Charter school proponents in South Carolina were undeterred by the bill’s failure. They said they would work to help put another version of the bill before the legislature when it reconvenes next January.

Vol. 23, Issue 40, Page 32

Published in Print: June 16, 2004, as Despite $20 Million Pledge, S.C. Charter Plan Dead for Now
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