Monday, March 21, 2011

Akerhielm: Why isn't public education a priority for our state?

Karen Akerhielm is a university instructor in Greenville and was published in the Greenville News during the weekend under a great headline: "Why isn't public education a priority for our state?" Her opinion-editorial may be the best and clearest analysis I've read of the current state of affairs in South Carolina regarding state lawmakers' support, or lack of it, for public education generally and specifically.

Read for yourself:

I was excited to read the recent column in The Greenville News that was titled, “South Carolina confronts its Sputnik moment.”

Would it be a column supporting research and development in new technologies? Maybe a call for investment in public infrastructure, or an emphasis on renewable resources and alternative energy sources? Imagine my surprise, and complete dismay, when I saw it was an op-ed in support of a private school tuition tax credit bill, which is currently under consideration by the South Carolina House and Senate.

Our state is in the midst of a serious financial crisis, with declining tax revenues and continued cuts in school budgets. Why would now be the time to introduce a bill that would further decrease available funding for our public schools by millions of dollars?

The five fundamental facts are:

1. The cuts in public school funding have been significant.

• Greenville County Schools’ funding from the state has been reduced by $53 million over the last two years, while student enrollment has increased by over 1,000 students.

• The district has responded by eliminating 356 positions, including 187 teachers, increasing the student-teacher ratio.

• There have been cuts in: science labs, computer labs, after-school environmental programs, tutoring, middle school language and music programs, instructional supplies, workbooks and copy paper.

• About a quarter of Greenville County’s school buses are more than 20 years old, with multiple breakdowns per day.

2. Tuition tax credits reduce state revenue, leaving fewer resources for public schools.

• In the proposed bill, the average tuition tax credit would equal $2,720, reducing the amount of money going to the state’s general fund, thus decreasing the total amount of funding the state has available for public schools. As determined by the South Carolina Board of Economic Advisors, the tuition tax credit bill introduced in the last legislative session would have resulted in a net revenue reduction of $128 million in the first year of full implementation.

3. The proposed tax credit will mainly benefit higher income families.

• The proposed bills in the S.C. House and Senate have no limit on family income. A family making $500,000 per year with a child in private school, will receive the credit.

• Tuition tax credits primarily benefit families with students already in private schools.

4. Some of our legislators are being influenced by large amounts of out-of-state, pro-voucher campaign financing.

• Most of the Greenville legislative delegation are sponsors of the proposed bills (Sens. Mike Fair, Phillip Shoopman, David Thomas and Danny Verdin; Reps. Eric Bedingfeld, Tom Corbin, Dan Hamilton, Phyllis Henderson, Dwight Loftis, Wendy Nanney, Garry Smith, Tommy Stringer and Mark Willis.) For some eye-opening information on out-of-state donations by pro-voucher forces to many of these legislators during the last two elections, go to and scroll down to “2010 Update” for the 2010 elections. You can click on “2008 Contributions” as well. Greenville County House Districts are 16 through 28, and Senate Districts 5 through 8.

5. There is no accountability to taxpayers for schools for which tuition tax credits are used.

• Unlike public schools, private schools do not face academic and financial accountability requirements by any state agency.

• Unlike public schools, private schools do not have to provide transportation, quality of education or acceptance of those “below grade level” or learning disabled. The credits will not help those students who lack transportation to the private school, who cannot afford the rest of the tuition beyond what the tax credit provides, or who cannot pass the entrance exam.

• There is no evidence that tuition tax credits improve student performance. The most extensive study of the impact of school vouchers — the current multiple year study of the Milwaukee voucher program — has found no increase in student achievement due to school vouchers.

To summarize, the bills currently under consideration by our Legislature, H3407 in the House and S414 in the Senate, will mainly serve to subsidize the tuition costs of families with children in private schools, will allow the use of a government benefit without any accountability to taxpayers, will not increase student achievement, and will have a large, negative impact on state revenues.

Our state will be spending more money and receiving no academic benefit in return, and we would be doing this while our state has found it increasingly unable to adequately fund our public schools.

Rather than a Sputnik moment, it seems to me that we have arrived at a moment of truth. Do we further erode our support and funding of public education by supporting tuition tax credits, or do we finally make public education a priority in our state, and ask that our legislators do the same?

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