Sunday, Feb. 18, 2007
Keep public school dollars in public domain
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has been replaced by the "South Carolina Educational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
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
$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.
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