The Associated Press is reporting details of a new 50-state review of online government transparency and ease of public access to state records.
The study was conducted jointly by the Sunshine Week Initiative, the American Society of Newspaper Editors’ Freedom of Information Committee, and the Society of Professional Journalists’ FOI Committee. According to the rankings, based on the ease of access to a list of various documents and publications, South Carolina is ranked 25th of the 50 states. But that number hides the real story.
One of the categories of criteria in the survey was public K-12 education. Analysts wanted to see if the following type of information could be found online:
• School-by-school statistics and evaluative reports, including: socioeconomic
measures; teacher-student ratios; school profiles, including ratings, parent reviews,
extracurricular activities; teacher and administrator salaries, and any additional
compensation for coaching, etc.
• Superintendent contracts
• School bus inspections
• School building inspection records, safety ratings
• District spending per pupil
• School health records
• School safety records, incident reports
The Myrtle Beach based Sun News, which confusingly cites South Carolina as ranking 22nd not 25th, points out that some of this K-12 information was accessible in South Carolina:
“…The survey of S.C. agencies showed the state Department of Education performs well, posting several test scores on its Web site, while the Department of Health and Environmental Control doesn’t provide Web access to death records – which is done in seven states.”
Online access to information about public schools in great but the real question remains: what is the practical value of publicly released data on schools when middle and low-income families don’t have the resources to act upon it?
Parents in South Carolina already know that 11 of the nation’s worst 25 public schools are situated in the Palmetto State. They know that 185 of the public schools in South Carolina have been given an “F” ranking based on state and federal standards.
More and more parents are realizing that race- and wealth-correlated achievement gaps are actually growing in South Carolina, despite a national and regional trend of reduction. This, despite the fact that bureaucrats in South Carolina released their school and district reports cards months after the deadline.
Families in South Carolina are also learning ever more about the personal irresponsibility and fiscal mismanagement that characterize the unresponsive bureaucracy that leeches away resources from public school classrooms.
But what is the cash-value of this knowledge if parents lack the resources to choose another classroom for their child?
The fact is that upper middle class and wealthy families can make real choices about their children’s educational futures. As they realize that even the “best” public schools in South Carolina dramatically underperform their out-of-state Southeastern peers, these parents can make an informed selection among a wide range of public, private, charter, magnet, independent and homeschool options. Even if they are totally satisfied with the local neighborhood public school as a match for one of their children, they enjoy the option to transfer another of their children out of it should the school not be a suitable match for that student’s unique learning needs. But not all parents have these options, and for them, publicly available data about public school performance is worthless.
Thankfully, some lawmakers are committed to real change. They are sponsoring the SC Education Opportunity Act. This bill will allow parents a real choice. It will reward engaged parents who make responsible choices for their children by providing them with modest tax credits. It will similarly reward corporations that donate money to charities that provide low-income children with scholarships. This also means more money for public schools and smaller class sizes.