Archives for category: South Carolina

This should be a fascinating event, and it starts in only 2 1/2 hours!

Educators and concerned citizens in South Carolina are holding a Town Hall zoom at Furman University about the new legislative mandates that criminalize teaching the truth about race and gender.

I asked for and received permission for readers of this blog to join the zoom.

To register for the zoom, sign in here:

Good news sometimes comes in small victories. I this case, the good news is that the legislature in South Carolina did not pass bills banning teaching about race and restricting abortion.

The Charleston Post & Courier reported:

COLUMBIA — Legislation that bars race-centric lessons in South Carolina schools and further limits abortions are likely doomed for the year.

The highly partisan bills are among proposals that did not meet the Legislature’s deadline for clearing at least one chamber, which opponents count as success.

“I’m a firm believer that there is success in stopping bad things from happening,” said Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg. “In some cases, it’s a matter of delay.”

The Legislature was preoccupied by debate on a bill about banning transgender athletes from participating in sports that do not match their sexual identity at birth. And they didn’t have time left to deal with other issues.

The following article describes a victory for parents and communities, which blocked a privatization plan to close 23 schools. It appeared on “Parent Voices for Public Schools,” which is sponsored by the Network for Public Education.

What’s the best way to improve public education? That question, hotly contested in communities across the country, has prompted an intense debate in Charleston, SC, a thriving city that is experiencing a boom in growth and economic development and has in many ways become a symbol of the New South. But too often missing from these discussions are the voices or perspectives from individuals from within the actual communities who will be directly impacted or affected by policies to improve their neighborhood public schools. We rarely hear from the parents who rely on public schools to educate their children and even the actual young people themselves, particularly those old enough to articulate and discern what they would like to experience in terms of a quality public school education. While the community organizations putting forth proposals to improve or reform schools in the South Carolina Lowcountry may be well-intentioned, excluding parent and student voices is a critical omission.

The most recent example is the Coastal Community Foundation (CCF) and its Reimagine Schools Proposal. South Carolina legislators recently expanded the state’s “Schools of Innovation” law, which authorizes the takeover of individual schools by an unidentified “Innovation Management Organization” or IMO. CCF’s Reimagine Schools plan calls for these IMOs to manage some 23 struggling public schools in Charleston, all serving students of color from surrounding communities.

In Charleston, the Coastal Community Foundation looms large, managing nearly $300 million in assets. But what it doesn’t have is any proven track record working in PK-12 education, a major concern of local area groups engaged in public education advocacy, grassroots roots leadership, and other critical voices from within the community.

Just how CCF’s Reimagine Schools plan would address the critical issue of community involvement is also unclear. The proposal calls for the establishment of District Innovation Commissions consisting of consolidated and constituent school board members and as many as ten members from the community-at-large consisting of faith and business leaders and other stakeholders. But what entity will determine who these individuals will be? This is a critical question at a time when local area groups and grassroots organizers have been pushing for more community voice regarding the direction of Charleston’s public schools. These advocates are concerned that CCF and its allies are moving forward with a vision that is open to privatization and financial profits for vendors without receiving input from the community, including the parents who rely on the twenty-three schools that are to be ‘reimagined.’

Community voice isn’t just an abstraction. Parents, teachers, faith leaders, and other local stakeholders are at ground zero when it comes to truly understanding the educational needs of children in their communities and the challenges they face when it comes to receiving a quality education. Most importantly, they are not in the game to profit financially through contractual relationships with various outside vendors.

CCF’s Reimagine Schools proposal calls on the Charleston County School District’s consolidated school board to spend $32 million to support privatization schemes. Voices from within the community are calling for these funds to be invested directly into the district to support greater wraparound services for students and their parents, provide two teachers in every classroom and provide additional psychological services given the shortage nationally of qualified clinical psychologists working in PK-12 education. These are common-sense solutions that meet the needs of schools within the local community that elected leaders would be wise to consider.

Since CCF introduced Reimagine Schools late last year, pushback from community groups and public school advocates has been fierce. Recently the school board announced that the proposal is being tabled indefinitely, a response to pressure from grassroots organizers. While experience teaches us that we must remain vigilant, this was a huge victory for believers in public education.

Dr. Kendall Deas is a Postdoctoral Fellow in Race, Freedom, and Democratic Citizenship with the African American Studies Program and Institute for African American Research at the University of South Carolina. He is also the Director of the Quality Education Project, a community-based research organization in South Carolina committed to public education advocacy.

Patrick Kelly, director of governmental affairs for the Palmetto State Teachers Association, warned in an opinion piece in the Charleston (SC) Post and Courier about the state’s teacher shortage. Teacher salaries are low, and legislators are obsessed with the idea of telling teachers what they may and may not teach. Meanwhile the state has a budget surplus, and Governor Henry McMaster will use it to lower taxes, not to raise abominably low teacher salaries or to feed the children in South Carolina who go hungry every day (about 15% of the children in the coastal counties of the state). Of course, I take issue with the headline: there’s no point trying to teach in a state that requires teachers to teach lies.

Kelly writes:

With the 2022 session of the S.C. General Assembly now more than a quarter complete, legislators have committed a significant amount of time and energy to bills that could have sweeping implications for what is taught in South Carolina classrooms as well as the very definition of what constitutes a public education.

Some of these debates address real, pressing challenges in our schools, while others are fueled by the desire of policymakers to respond to the very vocal concerns of select constituencies. However, in spite of all the time and energy dedicated to education, not enough has been accomplished to address the single problem that threatens to make all other education policy efforts moot: the state’s increasing teacher shortage.

The shortage of teachers in South Carolina has been growing steadily for years. In 2019, I wrote about how “the house is on fire” in schools due to the growing number of vacant teaching positions across the state. That year, schools had opened with 621 vacancies. This year, that number ballooned to 1,063 positions, a 71% increase. What looked like a house fire then has grown into a five-alarm inferno.

The timing of this shortage could not be worse for children. Right now, our students are facing unprecedented challenges, including increased incidents of school violence, depression and suicidal thoughts. At the same time, students are attempting to navigate the academic fallout of lost instructional time stemming from shifts to virtual learning, quarantines and student illness…

Education research universally agrees that the No. 1 in-school influence on student achievement is the quality of the teacher in the classroom. Given this fact, it is imperative to address the more than 1,000 classrooms that do not have access to any teacher at a time when students need more support than ever.

To date, though, there has been little done this legislative session to take the steps necessary to enhance educator recruitment and retention. One notable and important exception has been the advancement of a bill introduced by Sen. Stephen Goldfinch to guarantee 30 minutes of daily, unencumbered planning time for elementary and special education teachers, two groups that often go through an entire school day without a moment even to go to the restroom.

Other recently introduced bills hold promise, such as one introduced by Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter to address student debt for teachers and one from Senate Republican Leader Shane Massey to provide enhanced lottery scholarships to education majors.

But these bills have yet to receive committee review, a significant problem in the rapidly advancing second year of this General Assembly. As both the legislative calendar and our teacher supply dwindle, we need action now on these bills as well as other measures that could enhance education retention — steps such as reducing class sizes, providing enhanced mentoring support for new teachers and creating meaningful career pathways to keep our best teachers in the classroom.

The Legislature should also follow the lead of S.C. Education Superintendent Molly Spearman, who called on budget writers to do “as much as (they) can” to increase teacher salaries, including raising minimum starting pay to $40,000…

As our state continues to debate what is — or is not — taught in our classrooms, we should never lose sight of the indisputable fact that nothing is taught in a classroom without a teacher. A failure to put out this growing fire in our schools will deprive an ever-increasing number of students of access to the great teacher who can spark interests and abilities into their full potential.

Patrick Kelly is director of governmental affairs for the Palmetto State Teachers Association and has taught in S.C. schools since 2005.

Paul Bowers, previously the education journalist for the Charleston, South Carolina, Post & Courier, writes his own blog. In this post, he calls on the state legislators not to pass voucher legislation that would predictably defund the state’s already underfunded public schools. South Carolina has a large budget surplus and one of the lowest tax rates in the nation. Governor Henry McMaster announced that the surplus would be used to lower taxes instead of funding public schools and other public services.

Paul wrote the members of the S.C. Senate Education Committee in opposition to Senate Bill 935, which is an attempt to divert public school funding to private schools.

Senators Massey, Jackson, Hutto, Rice, and Talley:

I write to you as a South Carolinian and parent of 3 public school students asking you to scrap Senate Bill 935, the so-called “Put Parents in Charge Act,” which would redirect public funds to private schools via the creation of Education Savings Accounts.

Every few years, South Carolina teachers and parents have to band together to fight the latest iteration of the school voucher meme, which has spread virally across the states thanks to millions upon millions of dollars of dark-money political contributions, astroturfed special-interest groups, and a network of libertarian billionaires’ pet thinktanks. We fought this idea when New York real estate investor Howard Rich tried to buy a voucher law here in the early 2000s, and we’re fighting it again now that ALEC, Palmetto Promise, and the like are trying to ram the same idea through the Statehouse in Year of Our Lord 2022. There is truly nothing new under the sun.

As the educator Steve Nuzum has pointed out several times this year, the bill you will be considering in a subcommittee meeting on Feb. 16is largely copied from a piece of “model legislation” churned out by the American Legislative Exchange Council, a right-wing bill mill. I posit that we have enough terrible ideas to go around in this state without borrowing worse ones.

If enacted, this bill would be an obvious violation of the South Carolina Constitution, Article XI, Section 4, which states:

No money shall be paid from public funds nor shall the credit of the State or any of its political subdivisions be used for the direct benefit of any religious or other private educational institution.

Now, I am sure our attorney general would happily defend such an act against the inevitable lawsuits that would follow. I am no legal scholar, but I think it’s reasonable to assume he would employ some of the same arguments used to defend Gov. Henry McMaster when, in the thick of a global pandemic, he tried diverting $32 million worth of federal emergency funding from public schools to private schools. Notably, he lost that fight.

So, I suppose you and your colleagues in the General Assembly could enact this law, and you could win the legal battle that follows. Stranger things have happened. But the question remains whether you should go down this road.

I say no, you should not.

South Carolina’s most reactionary politicians have been clamoring for public divestment from the school system ever since radical Black Republicans created a free public school system for all in the Constitution of 1868. White supremacists clawed back at the notion of public goods with the Jim Crow Constitution of 1895; the Interposition Resolution of 1956; and the cavalcade of privatization laws, segregation academies, and district-level resegregation efforts that have continued without ceasing since Brown v. Board of Education was decided in 1954.

Data compiled by Steve Nuzum, via S.C. Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Office

As a matter of policy, you and your colleagues in the General Assembly have been steadily defunding public education since the start of the Great Recession. You have broken your own promises as outlined in the Education Finance Act and are currently under-funding the Base Student Cost by about a half-billion dollars per year. The results have been disastrous: Our teachers are underpaid and quitting by the thousands, classroom sizes have ballooned, our rural schools are in physical shambles, and a system of separate and unequal education along racial and economic lines has returned with a vengeance.

It is difficult to predict how much money public schools would lose as a result of Education Savings Accounts, which would allow public funds to “follow” individual students to private schools. Our state’s Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Office has tried to guess, though. According to a fiscal impact summary published in December, the ESA program could divert as much as $35 million to private schools within the first year it takes effect, depending how many families participate in the program. By 2026, they estimated the program could cost the state as much as $2.9 billion. Compounded by the General Assembly’s ongoing policy of public disinvestment, this could constitute a death blow to public schools.

The bill is built on a few faulty premises, including the underlying assumption that private schools could or would serve South Carolina students better. The authors of the bill also seem to believe that our state’s private schools could handle a sudden influx of new enrollment while accommodating students’ learning, transportation, and health needs. These are dicey propositions at best.

S. 935 is a direct attack on the notion of education as a public good. Its authors would leave us all to fend for ourselves as atomized individuals, cut loose from mutual obligations that once tied us together. For a certain type of doctrinaire conservative, this may sound like a dream scenario. For the rest of us living in the real state of South Carolina, it is a nightmare come true.


Paul Bowers

North Charleston, S.C.

Jennifer Hawes Berry of the Post and Courier of Charleston, South Carolina, wrote this account of a Charleston high school struggling to improve and raise its graduation rate, even as its enrollment dwindles in the era of school choice. The main effect of school choice seems to be the damage inflicted on the local public high school. The original story was published in 2015 and updated in 2020.

She writes:

Once a powerhouse Class AAAA school, North Charleston High can barely field sports teams anymore. Half of its classrooms sit empty. Saddled with a reputation for fights, drugs, gangs and students who can’t learn, middle-class families no longer give it a chance.

This is the unintended consequence of school choice.

Two-thirds of students in its attendance zone now flee to myriad magnets, charters and other school choices that beckon the brightest and most motivated from schools like this one.

But not all can leave, not those without cars or parents able to navigate their complex options. Concentrated poverty is left behind. So is a persistent “At Risk” rating from the state

Berry writes about the senior prom. Before “choice” drained the school of students, the prom drew 250 graduates. Now only about 60 attend.

She writes:

Fresh from jail, the 17-year-old has been at North Charleston High for six days. Principal Robert Grimm fought enrolling the teen given he came with an armed robbery conviction.

A district official said: You have to.

So, the new kid walked into the glass front doors and down the cinder block hallways, bringing with him only a handful of credits and a rap sheet.

Six days later, as students surge into the hallways during a morning class change, he starts shouting and bumping into another boy on the third floor.

Assistant Principal Vanessa Denney responds to the call for help. An ebony-haired Jersey girl, this is her first year at the school. She rushes toward the teens, fueled by an instinct to protect.

But the new kid crosses an invisible and clearly understood line.

With both hands, he shoves her down onto the floor hard enough to leave bruises. Denney doesn’t top 5 feet in stilettos. He outweighs her by 50 pounds.

Other students hurry over to help. Rodrik Rodriguez, the school’s burly North Charleston police officer, barrels in. He orders the student to calm down.

The 17-year-old doesn’t calm down. Rodriguez arrests him.

Then the teen crosses another clear line: He threatens to come back and shoot the officer, Rodriguez writes in a police report. “Watch what happens when I get back. I’m going to straight drop you, brah.”

New charges accompany the teen’s return to jail: threatening the life of a public official and second-degree assault and battery. He faces prison time, if convicted, and expulsion.

So the 17-year-old who Grimm didn’t want to enroll, who arrived with few credits and stayed six days, may wind up counting as a non-graduate on North Charleston High’s critical graduation rate.

The numbers game

It’s Wednesday morning, when several North Charleston High staffers will gather around an oval conference table next to Grimm’s office to tackle an onerous task: scouring the list of students who will count as dropouts because they have vanished from these hallways.

Every name is critical.

When a graduating class has fewer than 100 students, each one is crucial to that all-important number on the state report card: THE GRADUATION RATE.

With the seniors set to cross the stage in a month, time is running out to find students who last enrolled here but might be going to school elsewhere — or who could be persuaded to come back and finish high school.

Denney sits in her office poring over a roster of students counted as enrolled at the school. An educator turned detective, she must track down those whose names show up on the list but whose bodies aren’t warming a classroom seat.

If she can prove the teens are enrolled somewhere else, North Charleston High can scratch them from its rolls — and boost its graduation rate. If not, they count.

Report in hand, Denney heads downstairs to a conference room beside Grimm’s office, joining Data Clerk Kathleen Luciano.

Grimm huffs in, radiating ire.

A parent scheduled to meet with him didn’t show up. For the seventh time. And he’s just learned that two new students have appeared on the school’s non-graduate list. Both enrolled here as freshmen, then never stepped foot on campus.

Because North Charleston High has become so small — school choice drained 700 students from its halls this year alone — every student who shows up on that roster but doesn’t graduate in four years drags the school’s graduation rate down more than 1 percent.

Now he fears they’ll look like two more dropouts on the school’s graduation rate this year.

Grimm grabs his cell phone, dials the school district offices and makes his case.

“But she never stepped foot on this campus!” he insists.

As of today, the school has 84 students who should be seniors and graduate this year.

Of those, 58 likely will cross the stage in a month. Another 12 are self-contained special education students who are unable to pursue traditional diplomas. Yet they will count as non-graduates on North Charleston High’s state report card because rules about treatment of children with disabilities require all students be calculated alike.

But it means that this school, which has the highest percentage of special education students of all high schools in Charleston County, can achieve at most a 77 percent graduation rate, still below the district’s goal, even if every other student here graduates in four years.

The state likely will give it closer to 66 percent.

That’s because, as of this meeting, 14 students who should be crossing the stage are God knows where instead.

Denney recently found one should-be senior on Facebook posting photos of herself partying at clubs, new baby at home. Another earned a GED — but will count as a non-graduate per state reporting rules. One is in a psychiatric hospital refusing to do school work.

Then there is the 17-year-old charged with assaulting Denney. Another new student just was arrested for two gun violations in his neighborhood. Both likely will be expelled. Both could spend time in prison.

A student peeks into the conference room door. He just arrived at school, an hour late because he relies on a CARTA bus. He just moved — again — this time to live with an older sister.

But at least he is here, heading to a classroom.

When I was writing The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education (2010), I researched the history of merit pay. I learned that it has been tried again and again for a century, and it has always failed. Business-minded people think that the lure of a bonus will force teachers to work harder and get better results. But merit pay doesn’t work. Its main effect is to demoralize teachers. Michael Bloomberg tried it in NYC, and it failed. It was tried in Tennessee from 2007-2010 with a fat bonus of $15,000. It failed there too. Wherever it was tried, it failed. The theory is wrong, and as the great W. Edwards Deming argued, it doesn’t work in business either.

In 2010, I was invited to meet with the Domestic Policy leadership at the Obama White Housek (Melody Barnes, head of the Domestic Policy Council; Rahm Emanuel, President Obama’s chief of staff; and Roberto Rodriguez, the President’s education advisor). They asked me what I thought of the Common Core standards. I suggested that they give it a trial in two or three states and see how it works before rolling it out nationally. They dismissed the thought. They said national standards had to be in place by 2012, before the election. Then they asked what I thought of merit pay, and I said what I wrote here in the first paragraph. They told me that they were releasing $1 billion for a Teacher Incentive Fund. Waste of my time. Probably a waste of theirs too.

I recently ran across this story from Charleston, South Carolina, that appeared in The Post and Courier, the local newspaper, in 2016. It is an obituary for the city’s federal Teacher Incentive Fund grant.

Paul Bowers wrote:

Three years and $11.7 million later, the Charleston County School District doesn’t have much to show for its controversial program that linked teacher pay to student performance.

The Bridge program, devised during previous Superintendent Nancy McGinley’s administration and funded by a $23.7 million Teacher Incentive Fund grant, was supposed to encourage and retain quality teachers by rewarding them financially for good performance. Instead, teacher turnover increased at most of the program’s pilot schools, and internal polls showed that teachers weren’t motivated by the sometimes-paltry payouts.

The district has spent more than half of the grant so far, with only $614,900 going to teacher bonuses since 2013. The bulk has gone to pay consultants and a top-heavy bureaucracy of teacher coaches and evaluators to keep the program running.

The school board voted in February to pay one last round of teacher bonuses this fall and let the federal government keep the remainder of the funds. After that, Bridge will die a quiet death.

Well, quiet for some. For Drayton Hall Elementary teacher Patrick Hayes, the founder of the advocacy group EdFirstSC who has railed against the plan since the district won the grantin 2012, it’s hard not to say “I told you so.”

“It’s absolutely eroded trust and morale. There’s a universal sense that people don’t believe we’re doing our jobs,” Hayes said.

While Hayes said most teachers are comfortable with a principal observing them in class, they were often nervous waiting for the next surprise visit from an evaluator hired by the district office.

“When you get people focused on external rewards, they’re so anxious about those rewards, they focus on that instead of the job you want them to do,” Hayes said. “Overall, the notion that we need the adults to feel more nervous so that the kids will do better is flawed.”

McGinley declined to comment for this story.

Bridge started as a pilot program in 13 high-poverty, high-turnover schools, including North Charleston High and Burns Elementary. Using a formula based on student test score improvements, classroom observations and state evaluations, the district started doling out yearly bonuses of $1,000 to $4,000 for high-performing teachers and school administrators at those schools.

According to the timetable for the federal grant, the district was supposed to start evaluating all of its teachers on the Bridge measures this school year and roll out the raises to every school starting in 2016-17. District Superintendent Gerrita Postlewait estimated in February that the rollout would put a $5 million dent in the district’s already-tight budget next year alone. And once the five-year grant runs out, the district would be on the hook to fund the program without federal support.

School board Chairwoman Cindy Bohn Coats said she didn’t vote to end Bridge because it was an abject failure but because it wasn’t a big enough success to justify the expense.

“With these grants, you have to show such a success that when the grant ends, you’re willing to forgo something you’re doing in favor of that, or find a way to continue paying for it,” Coats said.

Long before Postlewait and the board nixed Bridge, teachers were railing against the program. An October report from the Charleston Teacher Alliance recommended returning the grant money to federal coffers, citing a survey that found just 16 percent of teachers in Bridge pilot schools thought the program was working.

“We are paid for our service, not for its outcome,” said Charleston Teacher Alliance Director Jody Stallings, a Moultrie Middle teacher. “The same is true of soldiers, police officers and doctors, for very good reason. The factors that go into our success depend on so much more than individual effort.”

Stallings said his group tried to convince both the McGinley administration and interim Superintendent Michael Bobby that the Bridge plan was “flawed, wasteful and doomed.” But it wasn’t until after Postlewait took office in July that the tide started to turn against the plan.

Despite Bridge’s many outspoken detractors, a district spokesman wrote that the program “received favorable feedback” when federal Teacher Incentive Fund workers paid a visit in spring 2015. And it did have local supporters, even toward the end.

In November, shortly after taking over responsibility for Bridge from previous district leaders, Project Director Anita Huggins wrote in an email to Postlewait that a panel of five school principals unanimously supported accepting another year’s worth of grant money. Listing some of the principals’ comments, she wrote that returning the funds during an $18 million budget crisis “could be a significant PR challenge” and “could exacerbate CCSD’s culture of ‘not finishing’ anything.”

“Regardless of whether we admit it,” she quoted one principal as saying, “the grant has resulted in an increased awareness of student achievement data.”

By that time, Bridge was already hobbled. In October, the district office had reassigned 10 TIF grant-funded professional development coordinators to school-level positions paid by the General Operating Fund, moving them out of the Bridge program. Postlewait had also begun putting a wide array of district projects under the microscope, from reading interventions to behavior management programs, looking for a “return on investment” to justify their continued existence.

Bridge wasn’t a total loss. The district was able to collect classroom observation and student growth data for “nearly all teachers” this school year, according to a district spokesman, and the program put the district ahead of the curve when the state started requiring all teachers to complete student learning objective paperwork.

Coats said she hopes conversations like the one that brought about Bridge’s demise will become a regular occurrence as the district moves toward a zero-based budgeting system that takes no expense for granted.

“I don’t think Charleston County School District will ever be a truly successful district until we are willing to do that on an annual basis,” Coats said. “Look at programs. Are they working? Should we expand them? Should they continue?”

Politico reports that Republicans view the pandemic and school closures as an opportunity to promote school closures. This should appeal to the 30% of the population who are unvaccinated and oppose mask mandates and other public health measures. These are probably the same parents who want to block teaching about racism and want parents to decide what their children should be taught (think creationism).

‘A WINNING POLITICAL ISSUE’ — The nation watched as Glenn Youngkin won the Virginia governor’s race last November by tapping into parental outrage over school closures and using the rallying cry “Parents Matter.”

— Now, as the highly contagious Omicron variant complicates the spring school semester and the 2022 midterms ramp up, GOP strategists say it is an opportune time to also propel one of their education priorities: school choice.

— “Parents being able to have a greater role in where and how their children are educated is a winning political issue, and we intend to promote it as much as possible in the coming year,” said South Carolina GOP Chair Drew McKissick, adding that bills to advance school choice initiatives, like education savings accounts, are ready to go this legislative session.

— “We look at education as being the civil rights issue of our time,” he said. McKissick also pointed out that school choice will be a key issue for Sen. Tim Scott, who’s in the middle of a re-election campaign. Scott, in an address to rebut Biden’s first address to Congress, said the pandemic-spurred public school closures created the “clearest case I’ve seen for school choice in our lifetime.”

If education “is the civil rights issue of our time” in South Carolina, why does the state refuse to fund its public schools adequately and equitably?

It is great when good things happen, especially when they prove the power of the pen. Backstory: an anonymous reader of this blog left a comment asking whether I was aware that a billionaire (Ben Navarro) was promoting privatization of the Charleston public schools. I was not, so I started googling. Every local news story was written by Paul Bowers, the education writer for the Charleston Post and Courier. I found Bowers on Twitter and invited him to write for my blog about what was happening in Charleston. He agreed and sent me his article last Friday night. I quickly realized this was a national story that needed more exposure than my blog alone. I sent it to Valerie Strauss at the Washington Post blog “The Answer Sheet,” and she agreed that we would post it simultaneously on Saturday morning.

We knew that the Charleston school board was holding an important meeting on Monday January 10, where they were expected to approve the privatization plan, called “Reimagine Schools.”

As Bowers wrote on his own blog:

The Charleston County School Board is preparing to vote Monday, Jan. 10, on a proposal called “Reimagine Schools” that would affect 23 predominantly Black schools in the district, potentially turning them over to management by an unnamed private third party.

Paul Bowers attended the school board meeting, not as a reporter but as a parent. He reported the results of the meeting here.

The school board stalled the privatization plan. Professionals spoke out eloquently against it. It may come back in the future, so vigilance is required. But for now, thanks to Paul Bowers, it’s off the table. Here is the account in the Post and Courier.

Read Bowers’ story and enjoy knowing that bad things can be stopped by shining a bright light on them and educating the public. Not always. But it’s sweet when it happens.

Paul Bowers was the education reporter at the Charleston Post and Courier. He wrote this post at my request. A reader alerted me to the billionaire-driven attack on public schools in Charleston, and I had the good fortune to find the journalist who knew the story.

Paul Bowers writes:

Every few years, South Carolina becomes a battleground for school privatization. It looks like 2022 is going to be one of those years.

Back in the 2000s, the New York real estate investor Howard Rich backed a series of South Carolina candidates pushing school vouchers, which would funnel public education funds into private schools. More recently, we have seen efforts by Gov. Henry McMaster and the state legislature to create a Tennessee-style “turnaround district,” to deregulate for-profit online charter schools via authorizer shopping, and to divert federal COVID-19 relief funds from public schools to private schools. Teachers and parents have had to fight these advances tooth and nail and have so far kept most of the damage at bay.

Lately it seems like the tip of the spear for privatization efforts in South Carolina is the Charleston County School District, a starkly segregated and unequal district anchored by a world-renowned tourist destination. The Charleston County School Board is scheduled to vote Jan. 10 on a proposal called “Reimagine Schools” that would allow a private third party to make decisions at 23 predominantly Black schools. I thought now would be a good moment to revisit the history of school board power struggles and dark-money campaigns in Charleston County.

The pressure to privatize the governance of public schools often comes from two of South Carolina’s billionaires, the chemical manufacturer CEO Anita Zucker and the debt collection agency CEO Ben Navarro. Sometimes working in tandem, sometimes independently, Zucker and Navarro tend to promote more charter schools and private takeovers of public schools.

Zucker and her advocacy organization, the Tri-County Cradle to Career Collaborative, were involved in a 2015-2016 effort to create a “turnaround district” at the state level, modeled after failed efforts in Tennessee, Louisiana, and Michigan. The proposal involved lumping the state’s lowest-performing schools into a new district and bringing in third-party operators to manage them. Similar bills were introduced in Georgia and North Carolina around the same time, but the idea never received serious discussion in the South Carolina Statehouse.

Navarro is best known nationally for his failed 2018 bid to buy the Carolina Panthers NFL team. In the financial world, he is known for his Sherman Financial Group, a privately owned firm that filed more lawsuits against defaulted credit-card debtors than others in the industry during COVID-19 lockdowns, according to a recent Wall Street Journal investigation.

In the arena of education, Navarro is known for his private Meeting Street Schools, which are sometimes lauded as a model for improving the test scores of low-income students from at-risk communities. Since 2014, Meeting Street Schools has entered unique public-private partnerships with South Carolina public school districts, starting with the takeover of two elementary schools in North Charleston.

With a boost of private funding, the schools invest in wraparound services for students and their families, offer additional psychological support, place two teachers in each classroom, and operate on an extended school day and academic calendar. Those practices have a proven track record of success, but most schools in South Carolina lack the funding to carry them out.

Meeting Street Schools also heavily recruit staff from Teach for America and KIPP, and they preach the trendy mid-2010s gospel of “grit” – in fact, the disciplinary model is so gritty that one Meeting Street-run elementary school suspended one-quarter of its students in a single school year. Before opening the schools under new management, Navarro sought and received a special exemption from the state’s employment protections for teachers. As a result, Meeting Street principals can hire and fire teachers at will.

Navarro is also closely associated with the Charleston Coalition for Kids, a dark-money group that emerged in 2018 and immediately outspent all other donors combined on advertising for a slate of school board candidates. Much of the Coalition’s funding and spending is hidden from public view thanks to state election law and the group’s nonprofit status, but FCC records reveal it spent at least $235,000 on TV commercials alone in the run-up to the 2018 school board election – four-and-a-half times what all of the candidates combined raised for their own campaigns. (Local activists estimated the Coalition’s spending on Facebook ads, billboards, and other media might have cost additional hundreds of thousands of dollars.)

The Coalition spent big on the school board election again in 2020, investing $306,000 on TV commercials, including attack ads against two Black incumbents. Today 6 of the 9 sitting Charleston County School Board members have received backing from the Coalition.

A number of national organizations have taken an interest in Charleston school politics as well, including 50CAN (formerly StudentsFirst) and the Broad Foundation.

After failing to create a statewide turnaround district in 2016, the 50CAN affiliate SouthCarolinaCAN shifted its focus to the local level – specifically to Charleston County. When I interviewed then-Executive Director Bradford Swann in December 2016, he said his organization would be focused on “grassroots organizing” via a 5-month fellowship program for parents.

The result was Charleston RISE, a parent advocacy group that also operates a parent help hotline. Billboards advertising its services have appeared all over the county, particularly in low-income neighborhoods. Charleston RISE trainees were among the founding members of the Charleston Coalition for Kids when it launched in 2018. Some RISE members said they helped vet school board candidates for the Coalition.

Currently the Charleston County School Board is deciding how to spend its share of the COVID-19 recovery funds provided under the American Recovery Act’s ESSER III program. Multiple local nonprofits submitted proposals on how to spend the money, but only one has gotten a public hearing.

On Monday January 10, the school board will vote on a proposal called Reimagine Schools that would target 23 low-performing schools in low-income and majority-Black parts of the county. Leaning on a “Schools of Innovation” law recently expanded by the state legislature, the proposal would authorize a takeover of individual schools by an unidentified “Innovation Management Organization.” The Schools of Innovation law also allows a school to hire up to 25% of its teachers in certain subject areas without a state teaching license.

The organization that proposed the Reimagine Schools plan is the Coastal Community Foundation, a relative newcomer to school board lobbying. The foundation and its CEO, Darrin Goss Sr., have promoted the Meeting Street Schools public-private partnership model as a way of getting around “bureaucratic” regulations. (Complicating matters further, the Coastal Community Foundation also administers an investigative fund and Education Lab for the local daily newspaper, The Post and Courier.)

The 9-member school board gave the Reimagine Schools proposal initial approval by a 6-3 vote in December without holding any community input sessions about it. All 6 members who voted to approve for the proposal had been endorsed by the Charleston Coalition for Kids.

Whatever the Charleston County School Board decides, the privatization push will continue in parallel at the state level. The state superintendent of education post is up for grabs this fall, and the first candidate to announce her run was Ellen Weaver, a charter school advocate with the conservative Palmetto Promise Institute. A central proposal in her platform is the creation of an Education Scholarship Account, a modified private school voucher program.

Sound familiar? If at first they don’t succeed, they give it a new name and try again.


Paul Bowers is a parent of 3 public school children in North Charleston, South Carolina. He was The Post and Courier’s education reporter from 2016-2019 and was part of a team that won the 2018 Eddie Prize from the Education Writers Association. Find him on Twitter at @Paul_Bowers and read his work at