Scoppe: What real education reform looks like

Associate EditorApril 17, 2012 

‘REFORM” is the “beauty” of politics — a change that might or might not be objectively good but that satisfies the desires of the beholder. Thus to big-government liberals, higher taxes on the rich constitute tax “reform,” while tax cuts are the fiscal conservatives’ standard of reform.

Even so, it was a stretch when the Washington special-interest group FreedomWorks hailed the S.C. House’s passage of New York millionaire Howie Rich’s latest private-school-choice bill as “education reform,” in a preview of the messages we will be hearing in coming months as candidates underwritten by FreedomWorks and Mr. Rich go after incumbents whom they deem insufficiently supportive of such “reform.”

What’s so off-key about the “reform” label isn’t so much that there’s nothing in the faux-voucher proposal that constitutes “a correction of faults or evils” in education — although there’s not — but that the legislation itself has nothing to do with education. It is, as all of the proposals to pay parents to abandon the public schools have been, a tax bill.

Just another in a long line of tax give-aways our Legislature can’t get enough of. Sort of like the sales tax holidays and the exemptions on pay toilets and gold bullion that House Republicans have rightly targeted in their tax overhaul package — and the $300 tax cap on cars and yachts and planes that they have not targeted. Or the give-away that pays producers to make movies in our state. Or any of the other loopholes and exemptions that clog our tax code.

GOP Rep. Jenny Horne identified the true nature of the school-“reform” legislation in a naked-emperor statement in the House Journal, in which she explained that she voted against it because she actually believes that “before the General Assembly passes another tax deduction or a tax credit, it should address comprehensive tax reform and school funding reform to fix South Carolina’s archaic and decades old school funding formula.”

Fixing our archaic and decades-old school funding formula would indeed constitute education reform. But even though nearly everyone in the Legislature and nearly everyone outside the Legislature who understands the growing problems with that formula pays lip service to the need to overhaul it, there’s no appetite for that sort of heavy-lifting.

Neither is there any appetite for other actual reforms — even though it would be extraordinarily easy for lawmakers of good faith to combine some of the best ideas from the right and left into a politically powerful path forward for public education.

That package would make it much easier for principals to fire underperforming teachers, pay the good ones based on merit and offer bonuses or whatever it takes to recruit top teachers who can turn schools around; it also would create a statewide salary schedule so poorer districts could more easily compete for talent.

It would consolidate school districts and impose state control much sooner when local officials can’t get the job done.

It would encourage more charter and magnet schools and allow parents to send their kids to any public school, and it would let schools spend money on the programs that work best, rather than dictating that this pot of money can be spent only on this legislatively preferred reading program, while that pot of money must be spent on that Education Department-preferred reading program.

And it would rewrite that funding formula to acknowledge how much more it costs to educate a poor child in a poor school than a wealthy child in a wealthy school.

Interestingly, one of the smartest attempts I’ve seen to craft such a middle-way approach came from a panel appointed by the man who brought Howie Rich to South Carolina, then-Gov. Mark Sanford. Of course Mr. Sanford doomed any chances for that proposal to be taken seriously by 1) being Mark Sanford and 2) mischaracterizing it as a call to throw public dollars at private schools. But anyone who is actually interested in “reforming” education would do well to dust off the 2006 report.

Along with calls for merit pay and broader firing authority, it proposed freeing teachers from non-teaching tasks, encouraging more collaboration (and thus a greater sense of professionalism) among teachers, and centralizing administrative functions at the highest feasible level, whether that means several schools, regional consortiums of districts or even the state level.

It included smart nuts-and-bolts proposals for improving learning, from keeping kids in school by creating a greater sense of belonging (eliminating block scheduling, keeping the teacher with the same students for more than one year) to reducing the number of partial school days and making sure textbooks are distributed on the first day of school.

And it proposed to collect business and manufacturing property taxes on a statewide basis, and distribute the money based on what it costs to educate each child, rather than each child’s “proximity to valuable properties.” That change, which would channel more money to poorer districts and “remove the barrier to economic development posed by millage rates in poorer districts that are significantly higher than such rates in wealthier districts,” would reflect the fact that “much of economic development is State induced and therefore funded by citizens beyond the school district where the business is located.”

Of course, that would be tax reform rather than education reform. But unlike the tax plan that the House just passed, it could actually result in better education opportunities for all those poor kids stuck in poorly performing schools — which tend to be the poorest schools — whom the defund-the-schools crowd claims it wants so desperately to help.

Ms. Scoppe can be reached at cscoppe@thestate.com or at (803) 771-8571.

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