Charter schools win court battle against SC High School League. Here’s what that means
Lou Bezjak, The State (Columbia) | Alex Zietlow, The Herald (Rock Hill)
On Monday, a Richland County judge ruled in favor of the private and charter schools in their lawsuit against the South Carolina High School League.
Richland County Common Pleas Judge Jocelyn Newman granted the charter and private schools an injunction that would push back two amendments passed in March regarding school-to-school transfers and athletic eligibility rules.
Private and charter schools that are members of the S.C. High School League said they were unfairly targeted by the amendments.
“Plaintiffs have properly established that they would suffer irreparable harm if the injunction is not granted, that they will likely succeed on the merits of the litigation, and that no adequate remedy at law exists. This Court, having exercised its discretion, finds that injunctive relief is proper,” Newman wrote in her order.
Gray Collegiate principal Brian Newsome called the decision “huge,” a win not just for private and charter schools but for all students across the state.
“It is a great day for all students in South Carolina, private, charter, traditional,” Newsome said. “It is not just big for us. Huge for all districts in South Carolina. Some of the smaller districts were impacted as well. Everyone thought this was just between private and charter schools against everyone. That wasn’t the case.
“We knew we had a good, sound legal team and they did a great job presenting before Judge Newman. We are glad she looked at the true merits of the case.”
The State also reached out to the S.C. High School League for comment on the decision.
Private and charter schools that are members of the High School League sought a temporary injunction that would prevent recent amendments from going into effect for the 2020-21 school year, which begins on July 1. The amendments approved in March by the High School League were related to school-to-school transfers and athletic eligibility rules.
The lawsuit alleged that those amended rules “intentionally and illegally discriminate” against the league’s private and public charter high school members.
The SCHSL will have a chance to appeal if it wants to, but that move would have to be approved by the organization’s executive board. The parties are supposed to meet Tuesday to see what they will want to do.
Under one amendment that was approved in March, most students who transfer from a traditional school to a charter or private school would have to sit out a year before they would be eligible to play any for athletic team.
In previous years, students were allowed to transfer to any high school in the state by the ninth grade and be immediately eligible athletically, even if they lived outside that school’s attendance zone. With March’s amendment, any student who transfers would have to sit out a year before playing junior varsity or varsity athletics.
Such changes “bar most students who choose to attend a public charter or private school from participating in League athletics for a period of one year from enrollment,” the Public Charter School Alliance said in a statement on May 18.
After Monday’s ruling, neither of those amendments will go into effect for this school year.
The case began in the Greenville County system before being moved to Richland County after Judge Perry Gravely ruled June 2 in favor of the SCHSL, which requested a change in venue for the case.
The S.C. High School League has 206 members — that includes traditional public schools as well as 21 public charter schools and four private schools. Private and charter schools make up 12 percent of the membership but have racked up state championships in athletics in recent years, especially in Class A and Class 2A. Private and charter schools won 42 of 57 championships in Class A and 2A from 2017-19.
There were 12 schools named as plaintiffs in the suit, including Gray Collegiate Academy from the Midlands. The four private schools that compete in the S.C. High School League are part of the lawsuit — Bishop England, Southside Christian, Christ Church and St. Joseph’s — as are other charter schools including Greer Middle College, Brashier Middle College, Greenville Technical Charter, Fox Creek, Oceanside Collegiate, Legion Collegiate and Palmetto Scholars.
The Public Charter School Alliance of South Carolina, the membership organization for charter schools within the state, also was named as a plaintiff.
“Of course, this is the first obstacle, the first hurdle,” Legion Collegiate Academy principal Dr. TK Kennedy said. “And I just hope that everyone pretty much uses some common sense with this and does what’s best for kids. ... I’m just happy for the kids. We can allow these kids to play, to participate and not sit them out because of these amendments.”
The SCHSL had argued that the schools didn’t have legal rights to sue or challenge actions by the league over the issues in question.
Newsome said he looks forward to sitting down with the SCHSL to go come up with a permanent solution that would be beneficial for all parties.
South Carolina isn’t the only state in which there is an argument between public schools and non-traditional schools, but other states have come up with solutions to the issue. A poll conducted for the March 2017 issue of High School Today revealed that 21 state associations use a multiplier or other plan to level the playing field among their schools. Among those were Indiana, which uses success in postseason, and Ohio, which uses a competitive balance plan.
The SCHSL in the fall had a committee made of private, public and charter schools from all classes to discuss the issue of competitive balance. The committee discussed factors such as multipliers based on postseason and championship success, but no decision was reached.
Another amendment, which would put private and charter schools in their own playoff bracket, didn’t pass this spring.