From the State Newspaper’s “Saturday Opinion Extra” (10/1/08):
People like choices. This simple aphorism is the basis of South Carolina’s most popular and far-reaching educational reform in the last four decades: state scholarships for higher education.
Across South Carolina, the HOPE, LIFE and Palmetto Fellows scholarships have helped thousands of students attend college. Many of the students come from disadvantaged circumstances. Some will be the first in their family to attend college. For others, the scholarship helps lighten the load of high-interest student loans.
These scholarships can be used at a wide range of both public and private colleges and universities. There is no state preference for choosing Clemson over USC or Wofford over Charleston Southern. This is a personal choice, rightly left to students and their parents.
The basic concept is simple: College graduates are important for the state’s economy. Helping students obtain a higher degree serves a public purpose. Extending the opportunity to low-income students also reduces social and economic inequality.
These scholarships are an excellent example of school choice. Parents, educators and lawmakers have praised them. Which begs the questions: Why aren’t we offering similar choices to students in grades K through 12? It can’t be an issue of student age. Lawmakers already have created a school choice model of tuition scholarships for pre-kindergarten children through First Steps, which has served thousands of low-income families since 1992.
Nor is it a matter of money. Per-student spending in South Carolina’s public schools averages $11,480, while proposals for choice scholarships and tax credits rarely exceed $2,500. This would result in a financial windfall for the public schools.
There must be something peculiar to the K-12 system. Neither public colleges nor public pre-kindergarten schools lobbied against school choice. Both saw it as an exciting expansion of access, not as a threat.
The big difference with K-12 schools is political. The K-12 public school system is a $7.9 billion-per-year institution that believes it has the sole civic and moral authority to educate children in South Carolina. It has raised protection of the organizational status quo above the instructional needs of students.
This is a shame.
Through political partnerships with organizations that lobby for teachers, administrators, superintendents and school boards, it has spent millions of dollars to fight change. It even worked hard to block scholarships targeted at special-needs and high-disability students. The most telling insight about this mean-spirited fight came from Debi Bush, president of the S.C, School Boards Association.
She recently described a call for universal educational access as a negative attack on “dedicated public school teachers, principals, students and parents.” Nothing could be further from the truth. Parents in upper-middle and high-income families already enjoy K-12 choices. They can move between attendance zones or districts, place their kids in a private school or sacrifice a parent’s time and income in order to home school their child. Many families don’t have these luxuries.
The Department of Education estimates that the average private school tuition in the United States was $6,600 per student last year. The average rate was even lower in South Carolina. This is half of public school per-student spending. A $1,000 tax credit or a $2,500 scholarship would dramatically expand the number of families in South Carolina who could afford to consider home schooling or private schools. This could free up millions of dollars for traditional public schools. It also would be a better way to fund public charter, magnet and virtual schools that are struggling to win their share of financial support from local school districts.
Choice has worked well for pre-kindergarten and college students in South Carolina. It has greatly expanded student access to high-quality instruction.
This has benefited both the students and the public in general.
Students in grades K-12 deserve the same opportunities.
Mr. Page is president of South Carolinians for Responsible Government.