Ever since the charter schools were first created, some in the black community have claimed that one of the purposes of these schools is to racially segregate students. This allegation has been leveled at the county's most recently approved charter school, the Charleston Charter School for Math and Science.
Slated to open in fall 2008, the school will accept students from across the county. In its first year, the school will teach students in only grades six through nine, but it will add another grade each year until the 12th and final year of public school is reached. The School for Math and Science will become the peninsula's second public high school.
Opponents, led by the Charleston NAACP, say the charter school is being established because white parents living on the peninsula refuse to send their children to predominantly black Burke High School, currently the community's only public high school.
Park Dougherty, chair of the School for Math and Science's coordinating committee, denies this allegation, pointing out that Burke High has been designated as a failing high school for more than five consecutive years. The S.C. Department of Education is presently monitoring Burke because improvements have failed to be made at the beleaguered school.
According to Dougherty, public schools on the peninsula can't get any more segregated than they already are. Seven of the peninsula's eight public schools have white student enrollments below two percent. Buist Academy, the peninsula's only school earning a rating of excellent, has a 70 percent white student enrollment.
Local NAACP chapter President Dot Scott argues that the development of the School for Math and Science ultimately will duplicate the racial makeup of Buist, offering white students an alternative to the peninsula's predominantly black public schools.
"Charter schools per se are a good idea just as any good school is a good idea," Scott says, "but the Math and Science Charter is being used by parents who will not send their kids to Burke to get their feet in the door. It may start out with a diverse student enrollment, but the number of blacks at the school will decline in the future."
Dougherty says that the school's student population must remain diverse. After all, regulations require student enrollments at charter schools to reflect the student populations of the school district the schools serve. And because the School for Math and Science will enroll students from across Charleston County School District, where blacks comprise some 60 percent of students, it actually will promote diversity on the peninsula, Dougherty says. He points to the 18 African Americans on the 58-member School for Math and Science coordinating committee as further proof of a commitment to diversity.
Leroy Connors, a founding member of Burke High advocate group The Friends of Burke, sits on that committee. He thinks the allegation that the new charter school is designed to segregate white and black students is without merit.
"I wouldn't be on the committee if I thought it would promote segregation," Connors says. "What's pushing this effort is people want a challenging environment that's safe and conducive to learning for their kids. They can't get it at Burke."
He adds that an ineffective education system, top-heavy with bureaucrats, is propelling the creation of charter schools because charters give parents autonomy and control. That means the charter's board of directors decides how the school is run, which classes are taught, and who teaches them.
According to Dougherty, "The district is one of the worst managed in the country, and it runs Burke. Even constituent board members are frustrated because they have been unable to bring about change at Burke."
He adds, "We have to create something that parents will support that's parent-driven and controlled. Right now we don't have anything parents will support and it's a terrible problem all through the system."
But the NAACP and other opponents believe the contention that parents want to avoid failing schools is subterfuge. "People feed into the rhetoric about failing schools to justify creating what they want," said Ruth Evans, a Charleston County School Board member. "I see this as an attempt at segregation,"
According to Scott, fixing bad schools isn't on the minds of some parents.
"If those parents were so concerned about failing schools, why haven't they done anything to improve Burke?" Scott asks. "What they want to do is take public money to make a private school that won't give everybody access."
Of the county's seven charter schools in operation, five are predominantly black, two are predominantly white. Two schools, James Island and Orange Grove, feature significantly integrated student populations.