From the opinion page of the Sun News:
Recently, members of both political parties took State Education Superintendent Jim Rex to task. Rex came to state lawmakers hoping to guide them in writing the K-12 education budget for 2009-10. The meeting did not go as smoothly as he planned.
Public schools in South Carolina began this past year with $11,480 per student. Of that, $4,800 came from the state, $1,100 from the federal government and $5,500 from local governments. Over the course of this year the state portion was cut by $480 per student. The $334 million reduction translates into a cut of just 4 percent of total spending.
South Carolinians want effective and efficient schooling for their children. Rex could have channeled this enthusiasm by arguing for policy reforms that expand parental choice and cut unnecessary bureaucracies. A state tax credit or scholarship model like the system used in South Carolina’s colleges and technical schools would be a good start. It would also save local districts hundreds of millions of dollars because local and federal appropriations would still reach the public schools untouched.
Sadly, Rex did not choose this route.
Instead, Rex found himself awkwardly arguing for a freeze and even cuts in classroom teacher and bus driver salaries. He made no mention of the tripling of Education Department employees earning more than $100,000 since he took office. Nor did he discuss how a mere 45 cents per allocated dollar reaches the classroom in the form of teacher salaries and instructional material. Rather, he actually defended the growing layers of state and local administrators and left those closest to the children to fend for themselves. Thankfully, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle called him out for this hypocrisy.
Rex also used the limelight to push for a watering down of the accountability system. Failing schools would be called at-risk instead of unsatisfactory. He confusingly argued that districts need greater autonomy to make their own budget choices, but then lobbied hard for his own personal pet projects like a costly new computer system for administrators and more of the controversial track-based curriculum for high schools. Again, members of the House were right to be skeptical.
Public spending of $11,000 per child ought to be enough for a world-class K-12 education system. That’s almost twice the national average of $6,600 for private school tuition. Instead, it funds bureaucrats over bus drivers and training consultants over teachers. Jim Rex could use his bully pulpit to advocate for real change for students in South Carolina. It is a shame he has consistently failed to do that.
The writer, of Columbia, is president of South Carolinians for Responsible Government, which advocates for publicly supported private school choice.