Real school choice in S.C. is high priority

School Choice South Carolina

Real school choice in S.C. is high priority,” an editorial published in the Times and Democrat (5/22).

In recent weeks some politicians and administrators who claim to speak for “public education” have made a frightening suggestion: They’ve argued that public debate over school choice should be entirely halted.

Dr. Paul Krohne, director of the S.C. Schools Boards Association and Dr. Jim Rex, state superintendent of schools, have called the discussion of educational choices “expensive,” “distracting” and even “dangerous.”

Their core premise is that one-size-fits-all government schools are a panacea for all that ails the children — and communities — of South Carolina. Rather than defend and explain this questionable position, they try to squelch public debate.

This tactic is absurd and alarmingly undemocratic. It indicates an esteem of the system over the individual students and families those schools were opened to serve.
Each and every child in this great state is blessed with a unique set of learning strengths and challenges. Every one of them, rich or poor, white or black, deserves equal access to a classroom, teacher and curriculum that is suited to their needs.

Children of upper middle and wealthy families already take these options for granted. Thanks to their parents’ wealth, they can easily attend any local public or private school. They can be homeschooled without worrying about a crippling loss in family income. They can even move across town or across the state in order to attend a different public school district.

Not all children enjoy such luxuries. In fact, the level of their parents’ income and the degree of their parents’ educational accomplishment tend to be the strongest indicator of their own chances.

The most striking example: the 73,000-plus children trapped in failing public schools (77 percent of whom are African-American, and 92 percent of whom are poor).

South Carolina can do better. In fact, we must do better! Not only do the futures of deserving individual children depend on it, the social and economic future of our entire state requires it.

The best way to raise student achievement and reduce inequality is to equalize access to a wide range of classrooms. That means real school choice.

Specifically it means state income-tax credits. South Carolina already offers dozens of tax credits for money-saving activities ranging from biomass energy production, hybrid cars and drip-trickle irrigation to corporate childcare and premarital counseling.

Individual and corporate donations to non-profit scholarship-granting organizations are a great way for businesses and philanthropists to make targeted investments in K-12 education. By awarding tuition scholarship at the start of each semester, they avoid Krohne’s and Rex’s concern that low-income families won’t be able to “front” the money required for tuition if they choose to transfer to a private school or another public school.

Last school year over 20,000 low-income students in Florida received scholarships to attend 937 different private schools through this type of program. In Pennsylvania, where the caps on donations and credits are higher, it was over 44,000 students. Not only have donors eagerly given money to save low-income children from failing public schools, they have also saved taxpayers money in the process.

As the first half of the 2009-10 biannual legislative session winds down, parents who support real school choice are more excited than ever.

Legislation is still being considered in the House (H.3802), as well as the Senate (S.520), that would not just “rescue” individual students trapped in persistently failing public schools, but also reinforce our commitment to public schools by reducing class size and increasing per-student funding.

Sherry Street is chairwoman of the South Carolina-based Association of Independent Schools Serving Minority Children.

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