An Upstate Christian organization awarded $1.5 million in this year’s state budget announced Friday it would use the money to form a public charter school serving at-risk and underprivileged children in Greenville County.

The announcement marks the second time Christian Learning Centers of Greenville County has changed how it plans to spend the controversial appropriation of public tax dollars, which is currently subject to a legal challenge.

The organization initially requested and was approved a budget earmark as “seed funding” for a $14 million private residential school for disadvantaged youth.

After The State Media Co. published a story about the constitutionally-questionable plan, the nonprofit, which provides released-time Bible instruction to public school students, denied it was planning a school. Instead, Christian Learning Centers’ executive director Janice Butler said, the organization was building a facility where public school students could seek academic tutoring, learn life skills and receive biblical instruction.

Now, it seems, that plan has been scrapped in favor of a charter school.

Charters are tuition-free public schools that receive government funding but are run independently of the state school system.

It’s unclear how a school run by a Christian organization that has proposed to provide biblical instruction to disadvantaged and at-risk students would meet the criteria to operate as a public charter.

The South Carolina Charter Schools Act requires that charters be nonreligious and admit all children eligible to attend public school, subject to space limitations. Exceptions exist for single-gender schools and charters that specialize in serving “educationally disadvantaged” students with demonstrated educational or behavioral health needs.

Butler declined to answer questions about her organization’s plan for the charter school, which the nonprofit announced in a brief statement posted on its website.

According to the statement, Christian Learning Centers’ board unanimously approved a resolution to enter into contract discussions with Reason and Republic, LLC, an Anderson-based education management organization that operates three public charters in the Upstate.

“The Board’s formal approval of this resolution is consistent with the vision that they and CLC Greenville’s staff have long dreamed of and discussed and is the next step in conversations that have been ongoing for many months,” the statement reads.

Liz Hill Braun, a spokeswoman for Reason and Republic, said the education management organization would oversee all of the new charter’s administrative, financial, business and operational functions, and provide strategic guidance about curriculum development and implementation.

“Our CEO started Reason and Republic with a clear vision to provide an excellent educational opportunity to students across South Carolina who need it most,” Hill Braun said in an emailed statement. “Expanding to Greenville County to serve high-need students is a logical next step.”

Reason and Republic, founded in 2017 by attorney and former Congressional aide James Galyean, currently operates Belton Preparatory Academy and South Carolina Preparatory Academy in Anderson County, and Summit Classical School in Laurens County.

Neither Reason and Republic nor any of its charter schools has a religious affiliation, Hill Braun said.

CLC charter school would be unique

Prior to Christian Learning Centers announcing its charter school plans, Butler said the organization aimed to build a school-like facility in Greenville County, within a 20-mile radius of Greenville’s city center, in the next three to five years.

According to the organization’s earmark proposal, construction would occur in phases, starting with a six-classroom school building. A pair of gender-specific dorms for 32 middle- and high-school aged girls and boys would be built next, followed by an administration building that would include a chapel and house Christian Learning Centers’ headquarters.

It’s not clear if the organization’s construction plans or timeline have changed in wake of its charter school proposal.

As of Friday, Christian Learning Centers had not filed the paperwork charters proposing to open during the 2024-2025 school year are required to submit by Nov. 1, South Carolina Department of Education spokesman Derek Phillips said.

Hill Braun indicated the organization was unlikely to apply for a charter until next summer, meaning the earliest it could open would be the 2025-2026 school year.

If Christian Learning Centers’ plan comes to fruition, the organization would be in uncharted territory.

Kevin Mason, who leads the Public Charter School Alliance of South Carolina, said he’s never before heard of a religious organization forming a charter and couldn’t think of any charters created expressly to serve at-risk children.

Some charters are housed in churches, including Reason and Republic’s Belton Preparatory, which is located on the campus of Second Baptist Church in Belton, but religion is not part of the curriculum.

While charter schools can cater to low-income students by strategically locating in high-poverty areas, they can’t, as public institutions, give preferential treatment to poor children or turn away kids with more privileged backgrounds who want to enroll.

Lawsuit pending over CLC earmark

The state is embroiled in a legal dispute over the funding it awarded Christian Learning Centers of Greenville County earlier this year.

A group of South Carolina residents last month sued the state over the $1.5 million earmark, arguing the appropriation violated the state Constitution’s prohibition on providing direct aid to religious or other private educational institutions.

They argue Christian Learning Centers, which, according to its website, “exists to provide biblical instruction to school-aged children” and on tax documents has identified its primary purpose as “religious education,” is a private religious educational institution.

The suit, filed by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a Wisconsin-based nonprofit that promotes the separation of church and state, seeks a permanent injunction preventing the state from allocating earmark money to the Christian group.

Gov. Henry McMaster, one of four defendants named in the lawsuit, has vowed to defend the earmark and said he believes it’s constitutional.

The governor has repeatedly questioned the state Supreme Court’s 2020 decision that nixed his plan to use federal COVID-19 aid for private school tuition grants, calling it wrongly decided.

“There are a lot of times when the state is participating in a way that it ends up having some religious influence in it, but I don’t think it makes it unconstitutional,” McMaster said last month when asked about the lawsuit. “I don’t think that’s what the Constitution means.”

Zak Koeske is a state government and politics reporter for The State. Before joining The State in 2020, Zak covered education, government and policing issues in the Chicago area. He’s also written for publications in his native Pittsburgh and the New York/New Jersey area.



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