Converse Chellis: School choice makes financial sense

converse-chellis

An editorial by Converse Chellis, the South Carolina state treasurer, in the Greenville News (4/7):

My goal as state treasurer is to safeguard our state’s financial future and work toward making South Carolina a better place to live, raise a family and do business. Part of a better future for all South Carolinians is the recruitment of higher paying jobs into our state. To accomplish this, we will need a better educated workforce. But, we must offer more educational choices for South Carolina families to ensure this happens.

My children were fortunate in that they were able to make a choice of which school they wanted to attend. Our daughter chose to finish her education in a private school and my son elected to continue his education in the public school system. Our family chose the best path for each of our children.

Education is crucial to a better future for our citizens. We must find innovative approaches that enable parents to choose what is best for their children. The clock is ticking and our economy is in freefall.

The South Carolina Educational Opportunity Act creates a path for thousands of South Carolina children to earn an education that helps them to break the cycle of poverty plaguing so many of our families.

The bill, S. 520, sponsored by a bipartisan coalition of state senators, creates a tax credit for parents who send their children to private schools. The tax credit will go to those who home school their children and individuals and businesses who donate to student scholarship organizations.

An analysis by the former director of the South Carolina Department of Revenue, Burnet Maybank III, shows that the legislation will save taxpayers $5.4 million dollars in the first year. That number could be much higher depending upon how many students opt for private schools if the bill becomes law. He estimates 3,790 children would take advantage of the credits – a figure from a 2005 Board of Economic Advisors analysis of similar legislation.

The main reason it would benefit the state is that the tax credit is limited to $2,433.50, which is 50 percent of the General Fund average per pupil allocation for the state. So for every credit granted, the state saves $4,867 that it would otherwise have to send to the school district. Maybank estimates the home school credit and scholarship component would cost the state about $3.7 million; but that is more than offset by the savings generated by the tax credit part of the bill. Millions more will be saved by local school districts that will continue to receive all the locally raised taxes despite having fewer children to educate.

While the numbers are compelling, the moral imperative for passing the bill is even stronger. Of the projected 690,363 students in public school, 73,772 are attending schools rated as failing. Some 67,000 of that group are at or under 200 percent of the federal poverty level.

And even for those students fortunate enough to attend the best public schools in the state, they still lag far behind their peers in other states. The most recent American Legislative Exchange Council “Report Card on American Education” ranks South Carolina 42nd of the 50 states across a broad swath of measures, including a state average graduation rate of 52.8 percent. That’s 17 percentage points below the national average.

We need to give our students options. As a state, we’ve already endorsed school choice at the higher education level through HOPE, LIFE and Palmetto Fellows Scholarships. Those scholarships allow students to use state money to attend their choice of public or private universities. But we can never expect to increase the number of students qualified to attend college if we do not first give them the right start in their education careers.

Other states are ahead of us in giving their disadvantaged students an opportunity for a quality education. Florida, Georgia, Arizona and Pennsylvania are among those that have taken the leap. Since a similar law passed in Pennsylvania in 2001, more than 3,600 companies have given more than $360 million to support scholarships and innovative public school programs in that state.

Children’s Scholarship Fund Philadelphia, which projects it will award 3,300 scholarships next year to low income K-8th grade students and receives about 40 percent of its money through the tax credit program, has tracked its students.

Ninety-five percent of them graduate high school on time and 90 percent are going on to college. This is a phenomenal record given that its students are chosen by lottery, all are low-income, and that the graduation rate in Philadelphia public schools is 50 percent.

That is the record we can build in South Carolina with the Educational Opportunity Act. Failing to pass it will cost the state millions. But for the 73,772 students trapped in failing schools, it means a life sentence of poverty. In a time when we cannot afford to throw money at failing programs, this is one example where saving the state money will also significantly enhance lives.

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