Editorial | SC school choice plan not enough on (long) road to reform

August 14, 2013 

The following editorial appeared Sunday in The Florence Morning News:

Most would be in agreement the state needs educational improvements and better achievement for our tax dollars. Those are basic and uncontroversial concepts, but the road to making those ideas a reality are anything but.

After some staunch House resistance earlier this year, South Carolina became the 23rd state this summer to offer a private, school choice option, albeit in a very limited form.

The program credits taxpayers 60 percent of their state tax liability when donating to nonprofits that distribute scholarships to special needs students.

The King’s Academy in Florence is one of 12 schools statewide currently qualified for the program, although officials expect more to follow suit.

It is capped at $8 million and would only last a year under current language, but for school choice supporters, like S.C. Superintendent of Education Mick Zais, it is a step in the right direction for market-based education reform.

According to 2011-12 data, more than 12 percent of South Carolina students are identified as having a disability that would qualify them for the program. But with approximately 730,000 students in the state, the hard cap limits the amount of students the program can affect to about 800, or 0.1 percent of students statewide.

Also because of the timing, this budgetary proviso is likely to help mainly families who are already enrolled at private schools, and that in some cases, even with a full scholarship of $10,000, families could be left with more costs to cover. The plan, while creative, is complex, which drains some of the energy from its appeal. Many of the affected families, we suspect, would find it confusing and not all that much help in providing a real school “choice,” especially given the small sample size available in the pilot program.

All of this means that this will return for Statehouse debate next year, likely with little hard, tangible data to back up whether the program has been effective. This test run is surely a ploy to get opponents to warm to the school choice notion, but without detailed quantitative substantiation, it seems yet another round of debate awaits.

School choice is rooted in the idea that by creating more competition, it will instigate positive change across all school districts. We think the school choice concept is valid and probably useful. It’s as obvious as the power of the free-market system, which we believe works fairly well. In the free market, the best ideas and options usually win out.

But that idea, however embraceable for other reasons, does still have lingering questions about integration, diversification and socialization of children, not to mention the down-the-road deleterious effect it could have on public funding for the state’s public school system.

There are no easy remedies nor easy answers for meaningful education reform, which is to say the basic picture of educational mediocrity (or worse) in South Carolina is likely to stay the same for the immediate future.

Policymakers were just in providing the alternative to special needs students first, but we fear this dip in the reform pool will still leave South Carolina education treading water for years to come.

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