Scoppe: The ‘choice’ charade continues

Associate EditorMay 2, 2013 

Scoppe

— WHEN SENATE budget-writers took time away from more pressing matters (such as writing the state budget) to begin a review last month of legislation to pay parents to abandon the public schools, Sen. Larry Grooms complained that he had been pushing the plan for a decade and that “Ten years of patience is wearing thin.”

I suspect Sen. Robert Ford feels the same way about his own pet project, since he’s been pushing for a lot longer than that to turn South Carolina into Las Vegas South. At least his colleagues have had the good sense to ignore that, rather than wasting time giving it a special review.

I know my patience is wearing thin with both of them — and a number of other legislators who seem convinced that just because they come up with some cockamamie idea, they are entitled to have it become law.

I suppose it’s an outgrowth of the long tradition in the Senate of taking several years before new ideas become law, even good ideas. But frankly, this sense of entitlement is unbecoming in anyone, and particularly in people who have gotten far more attention than their ideas merit.

Sen. Wes Hayes, who is chairing the special subcommittee that Senate Finance Chairman Hugh Leatherman assigned to review the private-school tax-relief bill, says he hopes to reach consensus on a plan to give parents more options for their children’s education.

Which would be fine, if the private-choice crowd were open to consensus. So far, it hasn’t been.

Let’s be clear: The compromise position already has been proposed — by Sen. Hayes and several other opponents of the private-choice schemes. The compromise position is to require more choices within the public schools: more magnet, single-gender or Montessori programs, for example, and more well-run charter schools. But the public-choice legislation hasn’t made it into law for two reasons: A few on the far left oppose even public-school choice, and the private-choice advocates on the far right have shown absolutely no enthusiasm for it.

Indeed, the Legislature passed a similar bill in 2007, but then-Gov. Mark Sanford vetoed it because it didn’t include the option of handing out super-sized tax credits to cut people’s tax bills if they help fund private schools. And his fellow supporters of private-school choice joined a small group of public-school backers who oppose charter schools to sustain his veto.

That’s right: After preaching about the need to give parents more choices in their children’s education, after lecturing us about how essential it is to pay parents to abandon the public schools if the result is that even one child could be helped, Mr. Sanford vetoed a bill that would have given choices to children in every district in our state. A bill that had the potential to help far more students than the private-choice bills ever could, and to provide that help without doing harm to the students who don’t or can’t take advantage of the options.

In the six years since then, public-school advocates haven’t been able to get the proponents of private-school choice to join them in supporting this expansion of choices in our public schools. By refusing to do part of what they claim they want to do, the private-choice advocates send a very clear message: We don’t really want to give parents choices. What we want is to undermine financial and political support for public schools.

Not that we didn’t already know that.

Sen. Kevin Bryant complained the other day that you can get tax credits for everything in our state except education. There’s too much truth to that, and if all the legislation did was give tax credits or deductions to parents to help cover their costs, then it probably wouldn’t be a lot worse than all the other ridiculous tax breaks our Legislature loves to dole out.

But just as giving parents more taxpayer-funded choices about their children’s education never has been the point, the tax breaks for parents never have been the point either. The real focus of the legislation — the part that would consume fully two-thirds of the $37 million annual cost — is the so-called “scholarship-granting organizations.”

Scholarship-granting organizations are the engines of an elaborate plan to let businesses and other non-parents cut their state income taxes by a dollar for every dollar they give to these new entities, thus directing their taxes away from governmental services to their non-governmental fetishes. The SGOs, as supporters call them, in turn would hire staff to select poor kids to receive scholarships to pay their private-school tuition. Assuming private schools would deign to admit the poor kids.

Supporters didn’t dream up these Rube Goldberg schemes as a last resort, after trying and failing to gain support for the simplest, least-expensive way to help poor kids attend private schools: giving them vouchers. This was their first resort.

Nor did they embrace the encourage-parents-to-abandon-the-public-schools option as a last resort after trying and failing to pass common-sense reforms that would improve the way our schools operate — rewarding teachers for excellence, for example, and empowering principals to get rid of those teachers who aren’t doing the job, and cleaning house when principals or superintendents or school boards aren’t up to the job, and consolidating school districts. They never even seriously tried those options. Just like they haven’t been willing to try public-school choice.

Why? I can’t know another’s heart, but it’s hard to escape the fact that public schools are one of the biggest expenses of state government; undermining political support for them could eventually result in less spending on them, and thus less spending on state government. In other words, the end game is to lower taxes, regardless of the effect that has on education.

If the private-choice advocates really wanted to improve the education available to children in our state, they’d have put a little effort into the first-line reforms of public schools, and if they had done that, we’d have passed those reforms years ago.

And we’d be well on our way to finding out who’s right: those who have decided our public schools are hopeless, or those of us who believe the main thing that has held back our schools, and the students in them, is our legislators’ unwillingness to help them, force them and allow them to do better.

Ms. Scoppe can be reached at cscoppe@thestate.com or at (803) 771-8571. Follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.

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