Privatize Rather than Address the Elephant in the Room-School Choice

It seems CCSD would rather privatize than actually deal with the fallout that school choice has brought to the district over the last few decades. It has left Charleston one of the most unequal and segregated school systems in the state.

Though the initial proposal to privatize schools by the Coastal Community Foundation was tabled last week, there is a real possibility it will come back up for a vote soon. If it is passed, the schools will not immediately become privately run, but given CCF’s strong bias towards privatization, there is little doubt that is the direction it will lead. The whole premise is built on completely faulty and unproven grounds. The argument is that the reason that these 23 schools are failing is because of bad leadership or management at the schools, and somehow, if hedge fund managers and private business owners could get their hands on it, they would do a better job. It’s a completely obnoxious and unfounded claim. The truth is, Charleston County doesn’t actually want to deal with the problem that is at the heart of its school district, which is inequality and segregation.

Charleston County has become a school district where the privileged can get some of the best education that is an almost prep school environment while poorer students are segregated into separate schools, which then face the inevitable consequences including usually extremely high levels of teacher and administrator turnover.

The problem is that Charleston County upholds the idea of school choice as a positive one when it’s actually the source of many of its problems. That’s why you can have the absurdity of having the top public school in the nation- Academic Magnet, just down the street from one of the lowest-performing high schools in the state-North Charleston High School. CCSD congratulates itself without any irony or self-reflection.

This has been played out in other magnet schools across the district and in the broader school choice plans, which usually means more affluent, primarily white, families can choose to not attend a neighborhood school but rather go to the higher income school in another part of the district. This is especially the case on the Peninsula and North Charleston. As a teacher educator and former teacher in Greenville County, I was shocked at the level of inequality and segregation in Charleston County Schools. Greenville County certainly has its issues, but it looks like a model of equity and integration in comparison to CCSD. All one has to do is look up at Dorchester Two and Berkeley County to realize that this level of segregation and inequality is not necessarily the norm. There you have schools there that are much more integrated with students from different economic backgrounds.

I understand the frustration of many in the community with seeing these schools fail year after year, but you can’t have your cake and eat it too. They want to protect the choice programs that help keep the most privileged students in their top learning “academies” while keeping poor students assigned to schools that inevitably have more academic issues. Sometimes the discussion is reduced to a discussion about making schools like Academic Magnet more diverse, which might be a decent goal, but it is not dealing with the heart of the issue. The real issue is, we actually need to re-think school choice. We would not have such a gap between schools if students just attended the school they are zoned for. Of course, the last thing we need to do is turn these schools over to private management organizations and pretend that will solve the problem.

The track record of this privatization across the nation is not strong. In fact, it can open up the door to real financial malfeasance as we’ve seen with charters across the state. I had a former student who teaches at a charter school in another district in South Carolina. She talked about the horrific nature of the school. It has a for-profit company running it. When she got COVID, they refuse to even pay her for the time, because she did not get the test at their clinic. Often these schools can’t keep teachers due to the complete rejection of any type of teachers’ rights. That’s what awaits these schools. It will mean even higher teacher turnover rates and more academic issues for students.

I agree that the status quo is not working in Charleston County, but we actually have to deal with the issues of privileged segregation and inequality. This seems like something that both many how are pro and against privatization have been hesitant to tackle. I get it. It is so deeply ingrained, and it will not be easy to change. We have to do the hard work, which may mean stepping on some toes. We need to re-think the school choice models in Charleston County as a whole. Otherwise, we will just continue to run in circles and come up with fallacious solutions.

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Will McCorkle

Will McCorkle

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I am an education professor in South Carolina with an emphasis in immigrant rights and peace education