Councilman floats resolution supporting private school choice 

City may weigh in on sensitive subject

After a string of city council measures to improve specific public and private schools, City Councilman Aubry Alexander has challenged his fellow council members to throw some political capital into the heated statewide debate over a parent's right to choose any school — even a private one. With a council split between conservative and progressive members, there's some hope for a resolution that calls for improved public schools as well as a private school choice.

"The school systems haven't changed in decades," Alexander says.

A generic resolution supporting better schools would have likely passed without debate in the same way we all support good hygiene or safe driving. But Alexander injected a bit of controversy in his pitch, alluding to the controversial idea of private school tax credits.

Millions of dollars (most from outside of the state) have been funneled to legislators advocating tax dollars for private schools. There has been some growing interest in a choice for parents, but progress has mostly focused on choosing among public schools.

Tax credit supporters have to weigh their words carefully to avoid a perception that they're anti-public education. Last week, GOP gubernatorial candidate Nikki Haley all but renounced years of support for the private school aid. "That is not my focus; my focus is the school funding formula," she told The State.

South Carolina law keeps municipal governments out of school affairs — leaving decisions on funding and curriculum to the local school board and state officials. But that doesn't stop constituents from turning to the city when they have questions or want to vent.

"The expectation is that their council member is the one to contact," says Alexander.

Municipalities may not be calling the plays, but that doesn't mean they aren't on the field. Last week, city staff and volunteers braved the peninsula's flooded streets to hand out more than 7,000 book bags and other school supplies at the annual First Day Festival. The city participates in other volunteer programs, like the successful lunch buddy events where you'll see Mayor Joe Riley sitting in the cafeteria with a student every few weeks. The city has also provided large donations for land for the private Meeting Street Academy, as well as for unique programs to improve student performance at Sanders-Clyde and James Simons elementary schools.

Donations of time and money are fine, but there's a pressing desire among some officials to get behind the scenes — where the educational sausage is made. Last month, Alexander introduced a resolution focusing his attention on the controversial matter of school choice. In the past, the city has largely supported programs at public and private schools serving impoverished communities. But Alexander says the city needs to take a stand for a broader swath of the community.

"I've made the point several times that we give a lot of help to who we deem the underserved," he says.

Government and nonprofit support tends to target low-income families, while wealthy parents have the means to pay for more if they see the public school system coming up short or they can decide to abandon public schools entirely in support of a private education. But Alexander argues there's a middle class with no option other than what they're offered in the public school system.

"Freedom of choice, freedom of self-determination is one of the fundamental rights we have as citizens," he says. "Give parents the opportunity to direct their children's future."

Supporters of private school tax credits have suggested that it would add a level of competition and put public schools on notice that they need to improve. Choice fosters competition, says Alexander.

"Schools are a monopoly," he argues. "Competition drives excellence."

But opponents counter that it would drive the brightest students and, more importantly, state funds from already struggling public school programs. A more pressing priority, they say, is to improve resources for public education.

Councilman Dudley Gregorie argues that a resolution supporting school choice may not offer the type of equality that Alexander is pitching. A 2007 mayoral candidate, Gregorie was a fierce advocate for increased municipal involvement in the local school system. He says it's time for the city needs to get serious about education.

"I have not seen anything comprehensive from this council regarding education," Gregorie says. "Choice is just a piece of the puzzle."

The two councilman have pledged to work together to craft a resolution they can agree on. Alexander says they're going to have to be delicate with the language.

"This is a very sensitive issue for some council members," he says. "I could see the nervousness on their faces."

Extra Attention

The private Meeting Street Academy serves underprivileged students in the Charleston area, providing an aggressive curriculum for $1 a day (with after-school care for $2 a day). The nonprofit school is largely paid for by the local debt collection firm Sherman Financial Group but also accepts donations.

Test scores and small class sizes have sparked interest from parents, but what the school doesn't have is a lot of space at its current King Street location. Last year, the City of Charleston agreed to spend up to $4.75 million for a large lot owned by SCE&G on Meeting Street. The school will build a $9 million campus and let the community use the facility after school hours.

The land swap has been delayed by contamination concerns, but city spokeswoman Barbara Vaughn says the power company is completing the environmental cleanup in the next few months and school construction should begin early next year.

The city isn't working alone in its effort to improve local education, either. Charleston Mayor Joe Riley has partnered with local nonprofits, philanthropists, and, most importantly, fellow governments to develop a program targeting the communities of four local elementary schools (Sanders-Clyde, James Simons, Mary Ford, and Chicora), each struggling to address issues of poverty and a lack of resources.

Charleston Promise Neighborhoods was inspired by Harlem's Children's Zone, a nonprofit effort in New York City billed as a holistic approach to improving education. It reaches outside of the classroom to address issues like asthma and obesity, provide after school and summer care, and offer guidance to parents and community members with legal questions or debt problems.

The federal government is offering 20 highly competitive $500,000 planning grants. The local effort is seeking that money, but before it even made the request, the city, North Charleston, Charleston County, and the Charleston County School Board all committed $50,000 a piece toward Charleston Promise. This is particularly noteworthy during tough economic times when many of these bodies have abandoned most, if not all, of their nonprofit donations. Each local government will be asked to commit an additional $250,000 over the next two years, with or without the federal aid.

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