Across South Carolina, parents, students and teachers are back to school, several weeks into the new school year. For many, the beginning of a new school year marks new opportunities, another chance to prepare for a promising future. But all teachers know that the hopes of success for some children will be short-lived. Throughout our state, far too many children either don't graduate at all or finish far below the best students in other states, including North Carolina. Besides failing students, every parent, teacher and administrator can name other problems that need to be addressed in our education system.
Education, allow me to introduce you to the free market. This is my fourth year teaching at J.L. Mann. I've heard many suggestions offered to improve our education system for all people involved. In light of all the tough challenges we face, I'm convinced that the underlying cause of many of our problems in education is too much bureaucracy and a lack of free market economics.
What would it look like to open up our education system to the free market? First, we have to realize that all children are different. Letting the free market work means letting families choose the education options that are best for their children. Parents should be able to choose among public schools, private schools, charter schools, home schools, magnet schools like ours and any other options that their children and my fellow teachers need for all of us to succeed. A free market focus would create the framework for parents and families to demand and find the classrooms, curriculum and teachers that best fit their needs. It would end the top-down, one-size-fits-all approach to education that is failing too many of our children.
There are a variety of mechanisms to make sure parents can choose their schools. I like the idea of tax credits and scholarships the best. Under such a system, parents or people who pay tuition to any school would be able to claim a tax credit on their state taxes to offset the cost. Scholarships would be available as corporations donate money for low-income families who can't afford to switch schools. The great thing about such a system is that public schools get to keep all the local tax revenues even if children transfer. Public schools would actually get to hang on to roughly $9,000 out of the $12,000 of per-pupil spending for every child who leaves. We would have a higher per-pupil spending rate as a result, and students could go to the schools that are absolutely best for them.
This is a bold change for our education system, but we don't have to wonder whether it would work. Just last spring Florida expanded its scholarship program to allow for more donations and help more students. According to an op-ed published April 30 in The Wall Street Journal, the program is saving the state millions of dollars each year. The expansion alone is projected to save $20 million over the next four years.
A colleague and I recently noted that we will fail an entire generation of Americans if we don't pass free market reforms to give our children, our parents and our teachers choices in education. However, there's no reason why we have to let that happen. There's no reason why our schools shouldn't be free to innovate and compete for the opportunity to educate South Carolina's children. Our next governor and lawmakers should make school choice tax credits and scholarships their No. 1 legislative priority this year. It's time we introduce our education system to the wonder of the free market.
The writer, a social studies teacher at J.L. Mann Academy of Math, Science and Technology in Greenville, was chairman of the School Improvement Committee from September 2008-June 2010.