What do all these things have in common? They are all myths.
Tax credits won’t help families. Scholarships won’t help families. Public schools will be cast aside and underfunded. Private schools will quickly become quasi-government institutions.
This is what The Spartanburg Herald Journal predicts will happen if South Carolina lawmakers adopt the SC Education Opportunity Act. The only disasters left out of the Spartanburg paper’s apocalyptic, post-school choice scenario are outright Communist invasion and the Thunderdome.
A quick glance at the thriving school choice programs in other states show these panicked speculations to be just as ludicrous as they sound.
Let’s consider a few of the Herald-Journal’s claims:
– Tax credits won’t help the people who need them most: Anyone who files a state tax return can qualify for a tax credit. The actual size of the credit depends on whether the applicant has a special needs student or is zoned for a public school, and averages anywhere from $2,500 to $4,500. All across the state, small independent schools are educating children for a fraction of what local public schools are spending. A family already spending $3,000-$4,000 on tuition would be tremendously benefitted by even a $2,500 tax credit. For example, in Marion County, Marion Mullins Christian School is educating low-income children for a tiny $2,000 a year, while Marion 7 schools are spending upwards of $14,000. Lowering their tax liability to the state would certainly help a family trying to scrape together such a comparatively low tuition. Regardless, the entire purpose of Student Scholarship Organizations (SSO) is to help families that would not be in a financial situation to benefit from the tax credit portion of the school choice legislation. Any family that is 200% of the Federal poverty level (about $40,000 for a family of four) would qualify to receive tuition scholarships from an SSO. These charitable organizations receive contributions from individual and corporate donors, and disburse them as scholarships to needy families. The SC Education Opportunity Act makes provision for parents that would qualify for tax credits, and those that wouldn’t.
– Scholarships may never be donated in amounts sufficient to help the poor: Taking the time to evaluate similar programs in Pennsylvania, Florida and Arizona would have saved the Herald Journal the space needed to write this. Corporations in Florida have donated scores of millions of dollars to Student Scholarship Organizations serving low-income students. In fact, so much money was contributed that legislation had to be passed raising the contribution cap from $88 Million to $118 Million. In Florida alone, nearly 20,000 students will benefit from SSO scholarships in the 2008-2009 school year. Pennsylvania’s school choice program has taken in over $530 Million in contributions since its inception in 2001, and in 2007-2008 gave out over 43,000 scholarships! Obviously families in these states love the options afforded to them through school choice, and corporations have lined up to make them possible. What if these programs shut down, and every one of these students have to return to public schools? Financial disaster would be the inevitable result. In the same way, if tough economic times force South Carolina parents-with their children currently in non-public schools-to send their children to local public schools, the state would be faced with the task of paying for the full cost of the new students. The basic economic principle of supply rising to meet demand hold true for education, as with everything else. Private schools have cropped up where families have needed them, and will continue to do so. Unlike with local public schools, if parents are displeased with the private education in the neighborhood, they at least have the power to do something about it. Worrying about whether private schools will be “good” seems ironic in light of how objectively “bad” so many public schools are. As with worries about “accountability,” issues of quality can be dealt with by parents who are empowered to act on the knowledge they have of the school.
– Public schools will be stripped of resources: The tax credits offered in the SC Educational Opportunity Act are taken as a percentage of only the state portion of per-student funding. Even with a portion of the state funding gone, the entire amount of locally- raised student funding (averaging about $5,000) will remain in public schools. Call it crazy, but that sounds like more money being split among fewer students. The fact is, South Carolinians pay taxes to educate children, not to maintain a certain kind of system. Worries about maintaining the current levels of unnecessary bureaucracy should not be put on par with the actual need of making sure every child has expanded access to a high-quality education.
– Private schools will become quasi-government institutions through testing and accountability: The SC Education Opportunity Act makes absolutely no provision for further government involvement in private or home schools. What the Herald-Journal fails to grasp, is that there is no “government” money going to any schools. Parents would be receiving their own money back on their taxes, and scholarship organizations would be handing out privately donated scholarships. There is no “public” money going anywhere. Regarding accountability: Private schools are already more far more accountable that public schools. If parents don’t like how a school is operating, they have the option of picking up and leaving. Time after time, shady financial dealings and academic failures have been highlighted in public schools across South Carolina. Ultimately, parents are unable to do anything to address these situations. Like public schools, private schools are held to certain standards for health and safety, and arguably held to an even higher standard. What private school in the same dilapidated condition of the much-publicized J.V. Martin Middle School (Dillon County) would be allowed to remain open? Even in the area of testing, private schools are already far more accountable than South Carolina public schools. What other state uses the PACT, or the PASS test? None. No parent can take PASS results and have any conclusive knowledge of how their child is performing compared to similar students in other states. Instead of using this expensive, non-normative test that provides vague results too late for parents to use, most private schools use a cheap, nationally normed test like the Stanford Achievement Test or Iowa Basic. Private schools are already accountable, and the idea that privately donated scholarships, or parents getting their own money back on taxes, would change that is laughable.
School choice makes sense. There is a desperate need for the state to boost academic performance, and at the same time save money. Other states have used school choice to address both of these problems, and the results have been undeniably positive.
Parents need the ability to act in the best interest of their children, and the SC Education Opportunity Act exists to give them the power to do so. Recycling the ill-considered objections of bureaucrats protecting their own turf in a failing system, detracts from the Herald Journal’s credibility on this crucial issue. Putting down bureaucrat talking points in editorial form is especially ironic considering the frequent, and spectacular, failures and misdeeds of public school officials in the Herald-Journal’s backyard.