AS THE House prepares to debate the latest bill that claims to provide parents and students with more choices in education, a Senate subcommittee will take up a bill by the top education policymakers in the Senate that would actually do that.
Unlike the private-choice bill in the House, which would pay some parents to abandon the public schools, the Senate bill would provide real options that might entice more parents to want to keep their kids in the public schools. Which seems like a logical thing to do, since the public schools would always remain the primary educator of children in our state, even if lawmakers passed the most ambitious of the pseudo-voucher bills.
The most important part of the bill (S.1267) would require every school district in the state to offer at least one “choice option” — such as magnet, single-gender or Montessori programs — at the elementary, middle and high school levels.
Like the pseudo-voucher plan, this would not magically cure the things that ail public education. It would simply acknowledge that students don’t all learn in the same way, and the possibility that forcing schools to compete more for students might push some to do a better job (though what’s more likely to push them to do a better job is giving principals more tools to reward their best teachers, tweak their programs and get rid of those who aren’t up to the job).
The choice requirement wouldn’t mean anything in innovative districts such as Richland 2, which is a state leader in using new ways to teach. But it would make a big difference in most districts, because it gives them the motivation to break out of the standard model — which isn’t working for the students who are dropping out, or barely getting by — and better serve the most-difficult-to-educate students. And it would do that without giving up those essential qualities that the “private-choice” legislation would happily abandon: accountability to the public, accessibility for all students and adherence to the state’s curriculum, teacher and other education standards.
The Senate bill also would require districts to enroll children from other districts, or from other schools in their own districts, in three years. But since local taxpayers foot much of the bill, it says they can’t be required to build new schools and hire new teachers to make room for kids from other districts. Which also makes sense.
“The intent is to maximize as much as possible the opportunities for South Carolinians in the public school structure,” said Senate Education Chairman John Courson, who introduced the bill along with the other chairman and the vice chairmen of his panel’s subcommittees, Wes Hayes, John Matthews and Nikki Setzler. He said it was similar in that regard to efforts to expand the state’s virtual and charter school programs.
It’s not a new idea. The Legislature passed an identical bill in 2007, at the behest of then-Education Superintendent Jim Rex — only to have then-Gov. Mark Sanford veto it. Mr. Sanford made all sorts of ridiculous assertions about the bill, but his opposition came down to the fact that passing it would undercut his plan of paying parents to abandon the public schools.
And that in fact was the intention of the plan’s supporters. Although I think Dr. Rex actually believed in the concept — and it’s a very smart idea, which someone needs to champion again — the way he sold it to school administrators and school boards and teachers was as a proactive way to fight the campaign by big-moneyed outsiders to divert tax dollars to private schools in the name of choice.
Of course this year’s pseudo-voucher bill isn’t a new idea either. It’s a slimmed-down version of the plan the House barely defeated last spring, at least in part because of the $115 million-a-year price tag. The new bill slashes the tax benefit for middle-class parents who flee the public schools, and it caps the total amount of tax credits it would give to businesses that chose to divert their tax dollars away from public services in order to provide “scholarships” to those poor kids whom private “scholarship-granting organizations” choose to help attend those private schools that choose to accept them. Those changes bring the price tag down to $37 million a year — although the out-of-state special interest group that’s trying to elbow out Howie Rich as South Carolina’s chief anti-education carpetbagger has made it clear that its goal is to put this skeleton bill in place and then expand it every year.
Neither bill is going to become law this year, and frankly, that’s not what the sponsors had in mind. Oh, I’m sure that some of the House sponsors would love for their bill to pass (and just as sure that others would be horrified), just as Senate sponsors would love for theirs to pass.
But unless you’re dealing with newly discovered problems, or newly discovered solutions, you don’t introduce bills in late February in the second year of a two-year session because you expect them to become law. You introduce them so you can say you did. Or, as is the case with the House bill, because people you’re afraid of told you to. Or, as is the case with the Senate bill, because you need a way to inoculate yourself against the attacks from the same people the House members are so afraid of.
Because, after all, this is an election year, and the carpetbaggers have made it clear that they’ve got truckloads of cash ready to defeat legislators who aren’t willing to throw tax money at private schools.
Ms. Scoppe can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (803) 771-8571.