School-choice experts give advice to SC lawmakers

jself@thestate.comSeptember 26, 2013 

The South Carolina State House


— As South Carolina tests its first-ever private-school choice program for special-needs students, national experts give the state credit for some efforts to provide accountability, but say lawmakers might want to take steps to ensure the state saves money and private schools deliver the quality education promised to the right students.

A state Senate panel tasked with vetting private school-choice proposals heard Thursday from the speakers on how private school-choice programs are playing out nationwide.

Matthew Ladner, a senior policy and research adviser with the Foundation for Excellence in Education, applauded South Carolina for requiring private schools participating in the program to report test scores to the state.

But if South Carolina wants to reach at-risk students, lawmakers could write laws that restrict school-choice opportunities to geographic areas where resources are scarce, or to students not already attending private school. That is something they are not doing now, said Josh Cunningham, an education policy specialist with the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The state’s private-school choice program passed into law as part of the current state budget. Under the plan, the state will offer tax credits for donations made to provide scholarships for students with disabilities to attend private school.

To continue the program next year, lawmakers must approve it again or adopt it into permanent law. The Senate panel plans to consider ways to strengthen the program and also plans to seek public input, said Sen. Wes Hayes, R-York, who chairs the panel.

The speakers Thursday said some states are seeing positive results.

Florida – South Carolina’s go-to state for modeling education reforms – “is saving quite a bit of money,” Cunningham said. The state saves about $1.50 for every dollar invested through its school-choice program that provides tax-credits for private-school scholarship donations, he said.

Those savings stem from students leaving the public school system and moving to private schools, he said. Students receiving scholarships who are already in private school do not produce savings.

To find out how the program is going, the state should consider requiring scholarship organizations and participating private schools to report information about who is participating to the state.

States should view school-choice opportunities as ways to complement public education and fill gaps in services, said Ladner, whose organization was founded by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

Parents of special needs children and educators often are frustrated by a public system that cannot meet the students’ needs with the public money available, he said.

Under South Carolina’s new school-choice program, taxpayers who donate money starting next year to nonprofits offering private-school scholarships to special-needs students will be eligible for tax credits on their 2014 tax returns.

The scholarships are for a maximum of $10,000. Taxpayers can claim dollar-for-dollar credits for their donations, lowering their tax bill by up to 60 percent.

The program is a small part of a larger school-choice proposal state Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Berkeley, has been pushing for years.

Under Grooms’ proposal, low-income students also would qualify for scholarships.

Grooms’ proposal also would provide tax deductions to families whose children attend private school, are home schooled, or go to a public school outside their district.

Critics have said that private-school choice programs like Grooms’ proposal would deprive public schools of money.

But Ladner tried to allay fears that school-choice supporters want to end public education, saying in states like South Carolina where populations are increasing, school-choice options only slow the growth of public schools.

State constitutions also ensure the survival of public education, he said.

“School choice is in no way, shape or form a replacement for the public education system,” he said. “Public education is a permanent feature of American life.”

Making it work

One criticism of private-school choice is a lack of accountability for schools that are not subject to government oversight like public schools.

Cunningham said grading participating private schools’ academic performance on an A through F scale is one way to show parents how schools are performing.

South Carolina has already taken steps toward providing some oversight.

Private schools participating in the state’s school-choice program must report how their students perform on national and state standardized tests. Their finances also must be audited and reported to the state.

But South Carolina’s current law does not require scholarship-granting organizations to report any information to the state about the scholarships that will be granted or the schools and students who will benefit.

Because they are private, they are not required by law to do so.

Advocates of the school-choice program say scholarship-granting organizations plan to report that information anyway.

Neil Mellen, who runs a website providing information about the state’s new school-choice program, said the leaders of the scholarship granting organizations have agreed they will report to the state about how many scholarships they grant and for how much, and information about the types of families and students that are benefiting from the program.

“Whether they mandate it or not,” Mellen said, “that just seems like best practices.”

School choice in S.C.

Current law, approved for one year as part of the state’s 2013-14 budget:

Taxpayers can claim credits for donations made starting Jan. 1 to scholarship funding organizations, created exclusively to provide private-school scholarships to students with disabilities.

Taxpayers qualify for a dollar-for-dollar tax credit good for up to 60 percent of their tax liability.

The state will grant to $8 million in tax credits.

Reach Self at (803)771-8658

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