Letters to the Editor

Reject Act 388 II

Bureaucrats are pushing a plan to raise taxes and increase spending on public schools. The districts spent $9.4 billion last year. Apparently $13,600 per student isn’t enough.

The plan will raise taxes across the state. Families and small business owners will be hardest hit. First, local taxes for public school operations would be eliminated and replaced with a new statewide property tax. Then the districts would get the chance to go back and (re)introduce “new” local taxes to supplement the state money.

The tax hike is brainchild of school bureaucrats, working through taxpayer-subsidized associations. The authors call themselves “educators” since they aren’t actually “teachers,” and they’ve been working on the tax scheme for two years. On one hand, they insist the new state property is necessary to “equalize” funding across all parts of the state. On the other hand, allowing districts to reintroduce local taxes will increase the gaps. Their estimates predict a net tax increase of $947 million the first year.

Public schools already collect money from local, state and federal taxpayers. State money is mostly based on how many students are enrolled in each district, with a few major caveats. Districts in low-income areas (whose own tax bases are small) get more. Schools who enroll many low-income students get more. Schools whose students have higher instructional needs get more. Those schools with the lowest test scores and graduation rates also get more.

In other words, funding levels are often highest at the “poorest” schools already.

Allendale, Lee and McCormick’s school districts each received over $8,500 per student from the state last year. With local and federal money added, they collected between $15,000 and $20,000 in total per-pupil. Beaufort, Charleston and Horry districts took in closer to $3,500 in state aid, with total funding in the $13,000 to $16,000 range.

The question is not how much money should be slated for government schools, where it comes from, or how it is redistributed. The question is how well the money is being spent and what (if any) correlation there is between the level of funding and the achievement of students.

Data from the South Carolina Budget and Control Board show that as total funding for schools rises, the percentage that reaches the classroom drops. Today it is less than 45 cents per dollar. One of the largest drop-offs in instructional spending occurred in the run up to Act 388’s implementation, which saw a massive binge in school construction. That controversial act – another contentious plan to swap local taxes for state ones – has been cited as a reason for the new tax hike. While the 388 “swap” was intended to slow the growth in local tax collection, total district revenue from local sources has not dropped since 2007. Meanwhile, the state funding in-lieu of local taxes has nearly tripled!

Frustratingly, there is no data reliably tying student performance to education funding levels. Not in South Carolina; not anywhere. Nationally, South Carolina is ranked 15th highest in income-adjusted per-student spending on public education. Still, four-in-ten students in those public schools will not graduate with a high school diploma. And the best and brightest in the highest performing district (York 4) still earned average SAT scores 200 points below their peers in the best North Carolina district last year. That’s despite a lower testing rate in the South Carolina district.

Another billion dollars won’t remedy problems on this scale. We can’t afford a second Act 388. Pursuing a far-reaching reform on how money is spent would be a better start.

The writer is president of South Carolinians for Responsible Government.