What the Meeting Street Academy means for Charleston

Meeting Street Academy Charleston South Carolina.jpg

Situated in Charleston, South Carolina, the Meeting Street Academy is a small nonprofit private school. It is growing toward serving 200 children, adding one school grade each year of students from low-income families.

The school is primarily funded by philanthropic contributions from the Charleston-based Sherman Financial Group, a debt collection agency. It charges a nominal one-dollar-per-day tuition “fee.” Parents are also required to make a commitment of their personal time, to engage with students both at home and in the classroom.

Soon, the city of Charleston will buy from SCE&G a $4.75 million, 2.4-acre lot at the corner of Cool Blow and Meeting streets. It will lease the lot to the Meeting Street Academy for 50 years for just ten dollars. The Academy promises to construct a $9 million school with a gymnasium and a playground. In the evening and on weekends, the city of Charleston can use the playground and gymnasium (which would have cost the city $4 million to build themselves).

The Charleston Post and Courier has editorialized in favor of the creative deal, arguing that “it is going to take innovative thinking and partnerships to achieve the educational gains our area needs.”

Even some of those who are critical -citing confused worries about “using public money for a private school”- seem very sympathetic to the school and its promises. Here are three examples…

From the “Newsless Courier” (a blog critical of the P&C):

The plans sound great. For 200 motivated students and their parents who might otherwise get lost in the morass of Charleston County schools, Meeting Street Academy is a life raft available to the neediest. It’s also a black eye to the Charleston County School District.

From “Charleston’s Shame” (a blog critical of Charleston School District):

Don’t get me wrong. I’d love to see Meeting Street Academy succeed. It would be great for them to prove what we’ve known for several decades. CCSD doesn’t know how to educate our kids anymore.

From the “Charleston Watch” (a blog providing citizen commentary on issues in the Lowcountry):

There seems little doubt that the school is very good, and may well be as successful as the Mayor expects. It seems harsh to deny it an opportunity to prove itself. But there is an inherent unfairness in that nearby residents will have the advantage of enrolment and there will not be similar opportunities for the children of all citizens.

Concerns about “inherent unfairness” are a reason to expand this and other types of equal access programs, not reject them. And frustration over “cost to taxpayers” may be missing the larger point.

Based on figures from the South Carolina Legislature, Charleston Public Schools were allocated $9,824 per student at the start of this school year. Of that sum, $3,609 comes from the state government, $1,328 the federal government and $4,888 from the local government.

What this means is that for each child who attends Meeting Street Academy instead of their local public school, the Charleston Public School District retains $4,888 in locally raised taxes to spend on other children. With a full enrollment of 200 students, there would have been $977,600 more for Charleston public schools just based on this year’s spending. Also, the lion’s share of the per-student federal appropriations and half of the state appropriations are not student-based; in other words even more money that remains with the Charleston District and fewer students they need to educate.

There may be other complications to the Meeting Street Academy plan. Charleston Watch worries about the details of the Sherman Group’s financial promise; Charleston’s Shame is frustrated about the opportunity cost of not using the money to build a new policy academy; and the Newsless Courier argues the deal was pushed forward without adequate feedback from taxpayers.

These are important considerations, and need to be publicly addressed by school officials and the city government, but the fundamental design of the idea is promising. When community and government leaders pragmatically focus their efforts and resources on “public education,” not narrowly on monolithic “public schools” students win. This has been well-demonstrated at the college level with HOPE, LIFE and Palmetto Fellows Scholarships. It is past time this student-centered approach is employed in grades Kindergarten through twelve as well.

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