Columbia Star: School Choice is “Win-Win”

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This story by Jessica Cross was published in the Columbia Star:

Laurie Pineda is the mother of a dyslexic 11- year- old boy with few options when it comes to S.C. education. Pineda is one of many concerned parents who gathered at a School Choice Town Hall Meeting on March 31 to learn more about the proposed South Carolina Educational Opportunity Act. The bill, if passed, will provide tax credits to parents seeking alternate education and some scholarships to students in families whose household income is at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty rate.

Pineda is a member of Palmetto Advocates for Choice in Education, a grassroots organization of families that share resources primarily for educating special needs children. PACE and the Capitol City Republican Women sponsored the event.

One reason these organizations support school choice is because they know that children have different needs. Pineda’s son, Harrison certainly did. “It’s not one- sizefits- all,” she said.

This philosophy is one that South Carolinians for Responsible Government spokesman, Neil Mellen echoed during the meeting.

And because children have different needs, the bill aims to produce both competitive students and competitive schools.

“School choice is saying let’s incite real competition and give people real choices,” said Mellen. But public school choice is basically shifting children around in the system, he said.

To ensure “real” choices, the bill provides tax credits based on the state’s average per- student expense in the local public district:

• Special needs students— up to 100 percent (4,867 dollars)

• Students in “failing” public schools—schools that earn a “below average” or “school at- risk” grade on the most recent annual report card—up to 75 percent

• Traditional students— up to 50 percent

• Home schooled students— up to 1,000 dollars for instruction- related expenses

But for families who don’t earn enough income to receive a credit, the bill makes a provision for scholarship organizations donor to receive a credit of up to 50 percent of their income tax liability, not to exceed 50,000 dollars.

Supporters of these credits say they would save money because school choice lets districts keep local tax dollars if students transfer to another school. Co- author and co- sponsor of the bill, Rep. Eric Bedingfield (R- Greenville) said the legislature’s reception to school choice is warmer than usual because the bill’s structure doesn’t siphon funding away from public schools.

Co- sponsor, Rep. Nikki Haley (R- Lexington) thinks the state must do all it can to meet students’ and teachers’ needs in the classroom. “I will support any and all efforts to reform education in S.C.,” she said.

But the clash between limiting government’s involvement and providing accountability is part of the debate for critics on either side of the bill. Since tax credits are funneled through individuals and charities, they protect schools from government intervention in matters of curriculum and religion. But accountability provisions for participating independent schools include compliance with state and federal non- discrimination laws, compliance with state and local health and safety requirements, and nationally recognized achievement tests.

The South Carolina Educational Opportunity Act is in the House Ways and Means Committee. Rep. Bedingfield expects that it will be heard soon.

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