Bureaucrats owe parents honesty

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Great guest column from last weeks’ Times Examiner and Greenwood Today:

Honesty is the foundation of improvement

A problem has to be identified before it can be solved.

This bit of common sense wisdom has been lost on the public school establishment.

Last Tuesday, Jim Rex’s State Department of Education announced details of a statewide jump in SAT scores. Rex described a two-point gain by South Carolina students and reiterated the Department’s signature “stay the course” and “sustained improvement” message.

A handful of policy experts, reporters and bloggers were skeptical. By week’s end a clearer picture had emerged: Jim Rex and his communication director Jim Foster had played fast and loose with the numbers. They relied on dramatic private school score gains to hide a drop in public school scores.

According to the Educational Board, who administers the test, public school SAT scores in South Carolina dropped from an average of 983 points in 2007 to 980 in 2008. That is a three-point decrease, not the two-point gain claimed by Rex. Add in the results of the new SAT writing section and the decrease expands to five points; from 1456 in 2007 to 1451 in 2008.

Meanwhile, scores from private and independent schools continued their steady upward trend. The average SAT score from these schools jumped 19 points this year to 1042. This average includes both the handful of high tuition “elite” schools, as well as the dozens of small, mostly religious, private schools that cater to rural and inner city students. From Capers Academy and Blessed Sacrament in Charleston to Colleton Prep and Oconee Christian Academy, the wide range of private schools in South Carolina serve every type of student. They also consistently outperform their public school peers. Their average tuition is well under half of the $11,480 in per student spending at public schools.

Rex and Foster mixed in these private school scores, as well as home school scores (averaging 1088), to falsely paint a picture of statewide improvement. Adding insult to injury, their press releases conveniently skipped over details an expanding achievement gap between black and white students in public schools – a shameful performance gap that is being reduced in most other states but continues to grow in the Palmetto State.

Finally, lost in the public relations spin, were the awkward details of the “best” public schools scores. Parents in Fort Mill, Anderson, Lexington 1 and Spartanburg were proud to hear that many of their local schools earned scores above the national average. But the one-in-ten districts that beat the national average still earned scores more than 120 points below similar public schools in North Carolina! While the often white, usually upper middle class parents in these districts have been contrasting their schools’ performance with low scores in Hampton, Clarendon and Florence, their children are competing with students from Chapel Hill for admission into college.

Jim Rex’s heart is in the right place. Every child in South Carolina deserves equal access to the most effective and competitive education we can provide for them. But Rex is wrong to think that such a monumentally important task should fall primarily on the shoulders of a state controlled system of government schools. Innovation and diversity in classroom instruction, facilitated through empowerment of parents, will help raise SAT scores in public schools as it has in private ones. Only when Rex and Foster provide parents with honest information will they be able to properly engage in this important process.

Randy Page serves as President of South Carolinians for Responsible Government, a statewide grass-roots organization that promotes limited government, lower taxes and increased educational options. Page may be reached at randy@scrgov.org

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