S.C. Statehouse Report
Sunday, Feb. 18, 2007
VIEW: http://www.statehousereport.com/columns/07.0218.voucher.htm


Keep public school dollars in public domain
By Andy Brack, Publisher

FEB. 18, 2007 -- To confuse an enemy, an octopus squirts black ink in the water and scoots away.

To confuse a political enemy, a politician often attaches a new name to a something to stir up support for something that hasn't been too popular with its real name.

Such is the case with school choice.

These days, the tune has changed for a lot of the folks who just a few years ago promoted the concept of school vouchers to allow parents to use public money to send their kids to private school. Now they talk about "school choice."

They get mad if you use the term "voucher." They say their policy position is all about giving parents "choices" about whether to send their kids to private school or keep them in public school. They say tax credits are needed to allow parents to make this choice. And they call for "tuition reimbursements" - - a new name for vouchers - - so poor students can leave low-rated public schools for private schools.

In fact, the old "Put Parents In Charge" proposal has been replaced by the "South Carolina Educational Opportunity Scholarship Act."

Behind the rhetoric is this core value - - these folks want to steer public tax dollars to pay for private school education. Whether it's a voucher, scholarship, reimbursement or tax credit, it would shift money from the public good into private school coffers.

Meanwhile, folks like State Superintendent Jim Rex are pushing for real school choice - - more choices among public schools for parents. He's barnstorming with a plan that would expand public school options with new types of schools and allow students to transfer to any public school in the state.

"My fear is public school choice alone isn't going to help someone surrounded by failing public schools," said Rep. Tracy Edge, the GOP House member who is lead sponsor of the new tax credit/voucher push. Last year, the plan died by a handful of votes in the S.C. House.

Edge, who says Rex's ideas are a step in the right direction, admitted this year's school proposal isn't much different from last year's. It calls for a $1,000 tax credit for families who send kids to private school, a $500 tax credit for home-schooled students and a $4,500 "tuition reimbursement" for poor students to leave low-rated schools for private schools.

If approved, the proposal would have a big budgetary impact. With about 53,000 students in private schools and 15,000 being home schooled, the state could lose up to $60 million in revenue if everyone who qualified for the tax credit took it. And that's not even considering anyone who might take the $4,500 voucher.

$60 million ain't chicken feed. It's enough to buy a $100 laptop for just about every kid in public schools across the state. It's enough to pay for 1,400 new teachers to lower class sizes across the state.

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Edge said he felt there was momentum again with his tax credit bill. In part, that's because Gov. Mark Sanford has re-emerged from the closet he went in last year to get away from the issue in an election year. It's also because some lawmakers are frightened because Sanford and his cronies wielded some power in GOP primaries last year by backing candidates who supported the voucher/tax credit concept and beat recalcitrant Republican House members who didn't.

Regardless of whether political momentum is building over so-called school choice, it would be bad public policy for South Carolina to back any tax credit measure to use public tax dollars to support private schools.

As a practical matter, you could drive a hole through logic surrounding the proposal. For anyone who believes in "market forces," smart private schools will simply raise tuition $1,000 and parents will be stuck with paying the same thing with the dang tax credit.

Also there's the market itself. Many private schools aren't for the credits or vouchers because they know the current private school system just can't handle a huge influx of new students. Rex added a voucher system would attract fly-by-night educators who start new schools and promise the world to parents but don't deliver. It's the education equivalent of bad contractors who flocked to Charleston after Hurricane Hugo.

Finally, there's a simple matter of fairness, as Rex explained: "If the state starts to incentivize people to leave the public schools, it will make us more separate and unequal in the long run."

Public dollars for education need to stay in the public domain and not be used for private education.

You can read the full report by MDC Inc. at www.mdcinc.com. You can reach Andy Brack, publisher of S.C. Statehouse Report, at brack@statehousereport.com.

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FEB. 16, 2007 -- For the past three legislative sessions, [Sen. Larry] Grooms, the chairman of his body's Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee, has worked to create a bill to regulate and manage the state's many isolated wetlands - small bodies of water without a visible river, stream or ditch physically connecting them to another body of water..

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