FACT CHECK: Jim Rex’s public school “choice”

Jim Rex offering “school choice” is like doctors endorsing Camels.

In 2008, 80% of public schools in South Carolina failed to meet federal Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) goals. This across-the-board drop in performance rankings led parents statewide to ask tough questions about the effectiveness of their local public school.

When parents determine that their child is not receiving sufficient instruction, what public school options do they have?

For many South Carolinians it will come as a surprise to learn that any public school choice options exist at all. In fact, since 2001, No Child Left Behind and South Carolina state law have allowed public school transfers for:

• The children of principals, teachers, and school administrators in most school districts

• Students at Title 1 (low-income) schools that have failed to make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) for two years in a row

• Students who have been the victim of violent crime.

• Students in schools that have recorded violent crimes for three years in a row

• Students whose parents pay the tuition based on the local dollars spent per student at the new district (up to $6,000).

Sadly, thousands of students meet at least one of these criteria, but relatively few parents have made use of existing mechanisms for transfer. In 2007, over 103, 000 students were eligible to transfer out of failing schools, but just over 2,000 families did so. Since then the number of students eligible has doubled.
While some people will attribute this low number of transfers to public school loyalty or satisfaction with schools, other reasons are far more likely.

Many of the school districts with failing or unsafe schools have few, if any, better alternatives. In a district where not one school has met AYP for years, where do you go? Even if a student wished to enroll in another school in a neighboring district, that district is not required to accept the transfer. The 18 percent of public schools that meet state and federal standards are typically found concentrated in more affluent areas, and are already full to overflowing. Parents quickly find out that wanting their child in a good school has no bearing on whether it will happen or not.

Oddly, in the name of “expanding public school choice,” Superintendent of Education Jim Rex actually proposed and promoted two “open enrollment” plans that would have further limited these public school transfers.

Rex’s ironically named “open enrollment” proposition in 2007 would have placed a 3% limit on the number of students that could transfer in to local public schools. At the same time, district authorities would be given more authority in defining and limiting transfers. This bill’s 2008 counterpart proposed more bureaucratic hoops for parents to jump through while requesting a transfer (something already provided for in South Carolina state law). These bills were meant to provide little more than political capital for some politicians. Nothing is done to address the real problems of school quality, and their ability to meet the needs of students wanting to transfer.

On paper parents may have some options for public school transfer, but these are confined to the shallow pool of high achieving schools with space, and further limited by bureaucratic control. Drastically falling SAT scores and AYP ratings are ample proof that these almost non-existent choices have not helped boost academic progress in South Carolina.

Transfer programs or so-called “public school choice” isn’t enough to help children in our state. After all, the failures in the public school model in South Carolina are systemic. Shuffling children from one under-performing school to another will accomplish nothing! Does Jim Rex really want all 600,000 public school students crowded into the 18 percent of schools that met federal standards?

Parents deserve the freedom to choose between public, private, charter, and home school. Wealthy families already have these choices. Only when this freedom is universally enjoyed will all students have access to classrooms that provide them with effective instruction.

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