Bubbling around the edges of our daily work at MSC are questions about the charter initiative. As many readers already know, we have been seeking a charter as a public Montessori school for about two years.
Our first application, to the South Carolina Public Charter School District, was denied. The reasons were complex and somewhat opaque, but they included our unique application (we were the first actual school ever to apply) difficulty in communication over special services, and the issue of fees for 3- and 4-year-old children. Frankly, we found the process a bit rigid.
So we are now applying to the Kershaw County School District for the same kind of charter. We believe that within the County we are well known, and the issues involved in granting a charter seem to be more practical: how much will it cost? How would it work? How is it administered? What are the benefits?
On that last question: many people in our county have a vague recognition of the word “Montessori” and the general (but vague) impression is that it is a good think but expensive. The reason for this impression is that Montessori is overwhelmingly private (93 percent)—in other words, available only to those with financial resources. Beyond these sketchy impressions, this innovative, century-old system of education doesn’t have much traction.
We are putting the question to the school district as a value proposition. What do you get, and what does it cost? Let’s face it, if it costs the school district (and my “if” is an important reservation) the taxpayers—and the KCSD Board of Trustees—have every right to ask “What do we get for our money?”
What value would MSC with a charter have for Kershaw County:
Montessori is not only an approved educational method in South Carolina, it is arguably the educational model for the future (Watch Dr. Steve Hughes). Our schools are not adequately serving all the children.
“School choice,” in the context of public school options, allows parents to have alternatives paths to relieve the struggles they see their children experiencing—without having to resort to expensive private schools. Many school districts in South Carolina, as nearby as Richland County, offer magnet and charter schools. Right now KCSD has no choices.
Recognizing that “one size fits all” doesn’t work in education, “differentiated instruction” is required by the SC Department of Education. This approach refers to an educational technique that adjusts learning objectives and teaching methods to the learning styles of each student. In traditional schools, where the teacher controls the entire classroom by ensuring the all do the same work at the same time, differentiated instruction has severe limits. The Montessori Method, by contrast operates entirely on the principles of individualized education—and has done so for over a century.
By granting a charter to MSC, the District will be adding an additional campus, currently with 3 buildings and expanding to 6 buildings, with no requirement for maintenance, and no requirement to train teachers or purchase equipment, because they won’t own it. The school will be an additional asset with essentially none of the responsibility for it. The District would grant a charter that requires the school to meet the objectives agreed upon, and the charter can be revoked if it fails to do so.
Assuming Montessori is the future of education—an assumption I’m confident making—granting a charter to MSC would eliminate the growing pains of creating a program out of whole cloth. In addition, the structure of a charter school, with its own Board of Directors as final arbiters, avoids the inevitable friction that pervades many public Montessori programs—either between the local district and the school, or between the school and the “Montessori wing” in it.
Basically, granting MSC a charter puts KCSD on the cutting edge of public education, with the opportunity for parents, through a lottery, to have a free and appropriate public education for their children.
So a taxpayer, impressed by the possibilities offered by Montessori, should now ask, “What is all this fancy stuff going to cost us?” First, it actually won’t cost anything. Any financial burden would come from students transferring from Kershaw County School District to the charter Montessori school. For example, KCSD has about 10,500 students and receives per-pupil allocation (it’s a bit more complicated than that, with fairly complex calculations surrounding special needs and gifted student programs). But avoiding the quagmire of sophisticated arithmetic: if 100 children moved from the district to MSC KCSD loses the funding for those children. But children moving from all the elementary and middle schools in the county means the loss of one or two children from some of the classrooms in each. KCSD can’t shut classrooms or wings of buildings to save the funds; it will need to operate with roughly the same expenses but with the funds allocated for 100 fewer children.
This argument overlooks several possible factors. The function of the public schools is not to educate the children in the District schools; it is to educate the children in the County. Parents of 35 school-age children are currently sending their children to MSC—because they can afford it. Others send their children to Sumter or Columbia for school—because they can afford it. School districts that offer magnet and charter schools have seen a migration from private schools to public schools. This phenomenon has several advantages. First, more county residents will have “skin in the game.” Second, people will move to Kershaw County specifically because of the opportunity for school choice, resulting in KCSD seeing an increase in per-pupil allocations, benefits to commerce in the County, and an increased tax base.
What will it cost:
Assuming no counterbalancing effect, if MCS opened in 2017 the cost to KCSD would be $125k, representing 0.16% of the KCSD annual budget. MSC anticipates measured growth over a 10 year period, with the cost in year 10 (2026) of $945k, representing 1.3% of the 2017 budget (no figures for the 2027 budget are available). Now, these numbers are still in discussion, and I hope to have estimates that MSC and the District agree are best guess. I promise to get back with our readers as soon as I know those numbers.
MSC is in favor of the $126m bond referendum because it is needed to upgrade the infrastructure. What is the district doing for quality?