Its time to make changes in education

December 31, 2009 

Great schools are not just an economic necessity for our state; they are a fundamental right for the children living in South Carolina.

In the last decade, countless well-intended policies for school improvement have been discussed and adopted by state lawmakers and local school boards alike.

The results have been uniformly disappointing.

In 2000, the Education Oversight Committee (EOC) set 10-year improvement goals for our public schools. In the last nine years, only two of the 10 benchmarks have been met. According to five of the yardsticks, public school performance actually worsened.

Just this year, SAT scores dropped for the third consecutive time. So did the percentage of students passing the Exit Exam and the Advanced Placement tests. South Carolina was ranked 50th in “promoting power” by Southern Regional Education Board. The ranking measures the percentage of 9th grade students who progress to 12th grade in three years.

The group also found that half of South Carolina public high schools are “dropout factories,” where graduation rates remain below 50 percent. The Rural Community School Trust estimates the on-time graduation rate to be just 40 percent at the public high schools serving South Carolina's poorest communities.

This failure is a great injustice to the capable and ambitious students of South Carolina. It is a slap in the face to the parents and grandparents who want the best for them.

Public support for education, the favorite scapegoat of school administrators, is not to blame.

South Carolina's 85 public school districts spent over $8.4 billion in local, state, and federally raised tax money last year. The money, more than $12,000 per-pupil, funded an enormous and complicated array of programs, initiatives, and departments, but failed to meaningfully improve student achievement.

The time has come for real innovation. We must find new ways to support parents and teachers who are committed to quality instruction. This can be done without siphoning money away from the school district officials who continue to insist $12,000 is not enough money to educate a child.

Luckily, there's a way to take the financial burden off local school districts as well as the general fund of the state. We can also provide more alternatives for parents to choose schooling options for their children. The idea is used abundantly in business and industry and where available to individual taxpayers, it works as an incentive to them too: Tax Credits.

Tax Credits could be used to give parents an incentive to let their children attend other schools when the families believe these might be a better. Yes, it is true that parents already pay to send their children to private schools now – over 70,000 in private and home schools now – but if all parents could get tax credits of an amount less than one fourth of the price tag of public schools (less than $3,000) tens of thousands more children would be able to go to private schools.

Parents would enjoy options they don't now have. Public schools would retain the programmatic funding associated with that child, and save the money on teaching that child and would enjoy lower student-to-teacher ratios.

Too good to be true? Not according to former State Department of Revenue Director Burnie Maybank. He authored a detailed financial analysis on how the windfall would help local schools and how the budget of the general fund of the state actually would be better off by giving the tax credit and getting relief on the Education Accountability Act (EAA) side of the budget equation, leaving a positive balance in the general fund of the state!

Ask yourself this: We all know how beneficial private schools have been to education in this state; so if the number of private schools doubled, wouldn't that only help the state?

When all parents can easily make real choices about where their child attends school, public schools will also respond to the competitive pressures from which they are now insulated. Even the vibrant debate over choice has spurred such responses in recent years. The rising popularity of Charter and Magnet schools is promising, but still only a small step in the right direction.

School choice is a broad approach to public education. It is not a case of public schools OR private schools, but instead public AND private (and charter, and magnet, and homeschool…).

These options, facilitated through tax credits for parents, will put real teeth into the accountability and transparency reforms we have already passed. Parents across the state – not just wealthy ones – will have a real incentive to keep tabs on school performance and use that data to make decisions about their children's education. Even children of non-choosers will gain from more effective public school classrooms.

Low-income parents need help too. The Educational Opportunity Act provides tax credits for corporations and individuals that donate to nonprofit scholarship granting organizations. These charities will exist only to support low-income students exercising choice. Skeptics have worried that relying on philanthropy won't work.

They are wrong. Similar programs already in existence in Arizona, Pennsylvania and Florida have been a huge success. Since 2001, more than 3,600 companies in Pennsylvania have pledged in excess of $350 million dollars for such scholarships. In just the last three years that figure was $189 million in Florida.

Everyone in South Carolina agrees that parents deserve more choices. The question is whether we can, and should, rely solely on public schools to offer such options. The lesson of the decade is that the public school establishment, like any other large bureaucracy, often needs a little nudge to make good on its own promises.

Randy Page is President of South Carolinians for Responsible Government and a board member of the Palmetto Family Council

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