As more and more parents in South Carolina speak out in favor of school choice, bureaucrats in the Department of Education have realized they must act. Rather than embrace a plan with parental choice and school competition, these public officials have been lobbying hard for public transfer and open enrollment programs in order to distract voters from real school choice.
Transfer options already exist for the children of principals, teachers, and administrators in most public districts. Those children generally have the option to attend any school within that district. Public choice is also federally mandated for pupils at Title I (low income) designated schools that do not meet Adequate Yearly Progress for two consecutive years and also for students who have been the victim of a violent crime. Children attending a school in South Carolina where there have been recorded violent crimes for three consecutive years are also entitled to request transfers. Finally, there are some instances where students whose parents can afford to pay tuition based on the local dollars spent per student at their new district (in most South Carolina districts the cost to the parents is in excess of $6,000 per child) may transfer within the public system.
In all cases, transferees must receive permission from both their home district as well as from the receiving district. Final notification about failing school status and choice options are not issued until the end of September, after the new school year is well under way. The offering of a transfer option is only mandated “to the extent possible,” and when districts lack other safe schools, they are “encouraged but not required” to allow out-of-district transfers. In such an unlikely event, they have no obligation to reimburse student transportation costs. Parents whose children attend isolated and underperforming rural schools do not have practical access to public school alternatives because there are none in their districts. Those living in higher density areas fight an uphill battle when seeking permission from two separate districts for transfers.
Although the public transfer options apply to a large number of schools, true school choice is not possible when limited to public schools. In 2004 there were 90 schools in South Carolina deemed low-performing by the US Department of Education. According to a 2005 report there are only 519 students in South Carolina who participate in public school choice. Parents have to pay their own transportation costs, fight with bureaucrats from both the out-going and incoming schools, and often they are left with only a “choice” between several failing public schools in their county. Meanwhile wealthy