The children of Laurens County suffered a blow on Wednesday from which they may not recover. The State Board of Education denied the appeal of the Thornwell Charter School by a narrow margin. Thornwell is currently a private school in the Clinton area which is closing at the end of this school year. A group of benefactors and administrators have formed a non-profit corporation to open a new charter (public) school on the grounds. The Laurens 56 public school district denied the original application of the Thornwell Charter School on August 11 on four grounds-fiscal impact, facilities inadequacy, unrealistic budget, and the legal issue of conversion from a private school to a charter school. The State Board, after hearing nearly two hours of appeal (including Sen. Danny Verdin & Rep. Jeff Duncan), ruled in favor, albeit barely, of Thornwelll on the first three issues, but sided with the district on count four. This was perhaps the most amazing finding of the Board because they had in their possession a June 1 opinion of the South Carolina Attorney General wherein the state’s chief legal officer found that the Thornwell charter application is in complete compliance with the law on this issue. The opinion states that, “…there is no conflict with Section 59-40-210 [the law on private-charter conversion] in such planned opening of the charter school…” The Board simply decided that the Attorney General does not understand the law.
As a member of the South Carolina Senate, I can assure you that no one in the General Assembly, even the lawyers, ever stands up and says that the Attorney General doesn’t know what he’s talking about. No one takes an opinion as definitive as this one, and so cavalierly disregards it as merely another argument. The Board’s decision to toss aside the official opinion of the Attorney General is stunning in its presumption. The Board, acting as a court in this case, absolutely ignored the only real piece of legal evidence in its possession. The hubris displayed by this act should deeply trouble anyone in South Carolina that cares about education.
The South Carolina Charter School Advisory Committee, which is charged with sanctioning each charter school application, declared the Thornwell application as one of the best it has ever reviewed. Nonetheless, Laurens 56 hired a top Columbia law firm, Halligan and Childs, at a cost that surely ranged into the thousands of dollars, to fight the effort of children and their parents to create an innovative learning experience. If this charter application cannot pass muster, none ever will.
This case is not about vouchers or “sending public money to private schools”. It is about public school choice, the very thing that defenders of the status quo claim they support. Obviously, they do not. The defenders of the status quo, in this case Laurens 56 and a majority of the State Board of Education, slammed the door on the hopes and dreams of children in Laurens County. This was an injustice.