Thursday, March 31, 2011

Spearman: South Carolina cannot afford vouchers, tax credits

Molly Spearman, executive director of the South Carolina Association of School Administrators, published an opinion-editorial in yesterday's The State newspaper opposing the resurrected Sanford voucher proposal, now cast as the Haley-Zais tuition tax credit proposal.

Spearman says that after hearing high-paid consultants praise Florida's tuition tax credit plan for their impact on student achievement, she called Florida education officials to ask for their analysis. Their conclusion was that a list of factors led to student gains: "a state-wide comprehensive reading plan, intensive professional development for principals and teachers, reading intervention, more time on task for students, reading coaches..."

No mention was made of vouchers or tax credits. And here we are in South Carolina cutting those very programs while considering a plan to commit $400 million to a program that has no research-based support that is works.

Appearing before a Senate panel recently, Adam Schaeffer, a paid consultant from the Virginia-based Cato Institute, claimed his group wants to “help poor students in ‘failing’ schools who have no choice but to attend public schools.” But as Schaeffer has made clear elsewhere, what he and the Cato Institute really want is to “get control of education, wipe out your tax liability, so that you owe the state nothing.” (See Adam Schaeffer, Youtube Dec. 27, 2010).

Spearman is a sharp lady, and clearly did her homework.

She goes on:

Motivation aside, would students in rural South Carolina who are at-risk actually be accepted in private schools? I visited the websites of the private schools along the I-95 corridor. There are about 50 schools, and only 35 of them are accredited by the S.C. Independent School Association or the S.C. Christian School Association. Each of these schools requires an entrance admission test. Some state that they serve only “average or above average students.” Some require a statement of “a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.” Others conduct entrance interviews with parents and students so that an admissions committee can “determine the authenticity of personal testimonies of faith.” As a Christian and an American, I defend the rights and liberties of any faith-based school to set requirements for admission, and of parents to choose that school. However, I seriously doubt that these schools will accept the very students whom the tax-credit legislation purports to help.

Finally, supporters argue that providing tax credits to parents who send their children to private schools would represent a “savings” to South Carolina. They define “savings” in the legislation as “equal to the amount of the student-based per-pupil state funding to each district less the value of tax credits taken” and tax-supported scholarships given. Well, that would actually produce a savings if all the students leave from the same class or the same school; then, a district could hire fewer teachers. The problem is, that’s not how it happens. The exodus might cause a class size to change by one or two students, but the teacher still has to be there, and the lights and heat still have to be turned on in the classroom.

That's a great point. Say that one student from every school in the state chose to leave and go to a private school, thanks to the new tuition tax credit. How does that save the state any money?

First, the loss of the one student would mean a reduction in funds available to that school by one per-pupil unit. But the other students remain, now with slightly fewer resources. No savings there.

Second, at the end of the tax year, now that student's parents get to take their tax credit as a deduction on state income taxes. That means the state's general budget for public education has that many fewer dollars to invest in the 1,100 public schools we've obligated one another to support. No savings there either.

So any discussion of savings, I've concluded, must be rooted in old voodoo economics.

Supporters get around the fact that tax credits don’t help poor children, whose parents don’t pay enough in income taxes to take advantage of the credit, by encouraging the creation of private, tax-supported scholarships. The tax support comes from allowing businesses and citizens to direct their taxes to these scholarship funds. Of course this “gift” is not really a gift. If you want to give and actually help, give generously to after-school programs, reading interventions -- things that have worked in Florida and communities across this great country.

This is yet another sop to right-wing corporate interests. Take Wal-Mart as an example, as it has funded scads of pro-voucher studies and programs across the nation. Now, I have no idea whether Wal-Mart even pays a nickel of corporate income taxes in South Carolina, but if it did, this proposal now gives Wal-Mart the option of designating an amount equal to its corporate income tax for the year to a "scholarship" program for children to attend private schools. Result: Wal-Mart gets to support private schools through vouchers, the state's general treasury is deprived of legitimate tax revenues, and the rest of South Carolina's public schoolchildren get fewer resources.

Who, exactly, do our lawmakers represent and serve?

Spearman makes a last point:

More importantly, South Carolina faces a $700 million deficit. The current level of basic state funding for students has fallen to nearly half of what our law requires. Our charter schools and traditional school districts are struggling to exist. State agencies are cutting basic safety and health services. Our roads are filled with pot holes. We are falling behind our neighbors in North Carolina and Georgia. We cannot gamble on this legislation.

Pretty straightforward statement, all in all. A cogent analysis.

But the Cato Institute analyst that Spearman mentioned in her column took issue. No, it's worse than that: He called her a liar and said she offered no evidence in her column.

Yes, I was shocked too, that someone from Washington, D.C., would come all the way to Columbia, stand on our front porch and ridicule the way we conduct our business, then go back home and call us liars from a safe distance. I Googled the young man and found that either Thomas Jefferson's University of Virginia is overly liberal in handing out doctorates these days, or that this man collected no manners during his studies there.

Schaeffer received his Ph.D. in American politics, with a focus in political behavior, media effects, and coalitional politics, from the University of Virginia and his MA in Social Science from the University of Chicago. His dissertation assessed the potential for different combinations of private school choice policies and messages to expand and mobilize elite and mass support. Schaeffer has an extensive background in online survey development, messaging experiments, and the strategic analysis of message, policy, and audience interactions.

I also notice that the Cincinnati, Ohio, native matriculated at Colgate University in central New York and took his master's degree at the University of Chicago before coming to Virginia. So we are free to presume what we will from this.

We do not have to presume the fellow's intellectual pretenses. He lays them out for the reader himself in an online colloquy from some years ago about renaming "consequentialist libertarian" politics. Apparently being seen as, or called, Libertarian in the modern age is gauche. So Schaeffer offers an alternative. (Yes, it is a diversion from the point of this note, but it is a revealing one about the speaker. Indulge, get a drink, and read this part slowly. You might try reading it aloud to a loved one.)

I’d like to ask everyone to propose a name for this consequentialist libertarian approach—paying attention to stylistic concerns and possible associations that others may bring to the name, in addition to how well the name conforms to the ideas it represents.

I’ll get the ball rolling with a suggestion:


I think that the popularity of the word “post-modern” is due in large part to its ambiguity. “Modern” is a difficult bundle of ideas, movements, and impressions on its own, but adding “post” adds another layer of tantalizing and mysterious associations. In terms of general impressions, however, “modern” conjures up thoughts of the enlightenment, science, progress, power, and the triumph of reason. “Post-modern” in turn calls up darker, vague notions of loss—the loss of faith in God and reason and the human projects driven by belief in them—and the embrace of nihilism and relativism. It’s a sexy word, evoking images of intellectual super-men bravely shouldering a philosophical angst that would crush lesser mortals. Although Friedman’s approach does not referee competing values, it does rely heavily on a certain faith in reason. It seems, fundamentally, a return to modern thinking.

I think that anything with “libertarian” on the nameplate brings far too heavy a bag to carry. The associations cannot be severed—with the Libertarian Party, various think-tanks, and a large collection of traditional adherents, the word “libertarian” will not be remade easily. Best to do away with it entirely.

The prefix “neo,” like “post,” has the virtue of bringing a tantalizingly ambiguous flavor to “modern.” It makes “modern” less pedestrian, while also conveying that this is a new approach to politics and society. It suggests comparison with postmodernism, which is overdue for a downgrade in popularity, while echoing the now very popular, if imprecisely used, word “neo-conservative.” These two terms are also associated with different ends of the political spectrum, which means that “neo-modernism” should be politically ambiguous at first glance. “Modern”—modern things are good, but in need of revision—Postmodernism is old news, but “neo-modern” sounds like it just might have something interesting to convey.

Those are my initial thoughts—let me know what you think. Criticize away. And please post suggestions for other labels. This needs a good name.


Many Southerners prefer Georgian, for the record. It cuts to the chase.

Ironic that Schaeffer disdains the Libertarian label for its associations with "various think-tanks," given his present association with the Cato Institute and its pedigree. I've come to read Cato and Libertarian as synonymous.

I tell you, I spent an hour sitting with my dictionary on the side porch and nursing a third Coca-Cola in deep study of this young man's text. I did so because this is the person who upbraided Spearman at SCASA for offering no facts and no evidence in her opinion-editorial, as either lying or suffering from "ignorance." I wanted to get a sense of the man. And I did. The greatest discoveries I made are that he's enamored of his own prodigious polysyllabicism and he prefers to pump his own gasoline in New Jersey.

As for his ill-mannered treatment of Spearman, he whimpers at her charactization of him as a "paid consultant," then demonstrates that he's both "paid" and he consults. Clearly, he's become used to being called an "expert." We're used to experts in South Carolina. They often arrive from out-of-town with briefcases, some made of carpet. Our present governor professes to rely upon them, as reported in the Rock Hill Herald:

The state is bringing in "think tanks out of Washington to help see what's the best tax structure for South Carolina."

Having accused her of offering no evidence for her own conclusion, Schaeffer takes Spearman to task for seeking out evidence by "calling someone in the Florida Department of [Public] Education to ask them why they thought academic achievement in Florida has increased."

This is precisely why I question UVA's criteria for granting doctorates in these times. We are to take it that accurate facts and "evidence" comes only from printed pages and not from dialing up an expert and conducting interviews over the phone.

Yet Schaeffer, perhaps back at home in Arlington, marvels at how many "errors" Spearman could pack into "a piece under 700 words," and chides her: "Had Ms. Spearman done her due diligence on this education issue, or had she called me and asked, she could have avoided these embarrassing errors."

Good that she didn't, say I. Best not to get caught up on the phone in "the loss of faith in God and reason, and the human projects driven by belief in them, and the embrace of nihilism and relativism." We have children to educate down here. Yes, Schaeffer likely finds that public education "is overdue for a downgrade in popularity," and would exclaim "the now very popular, if imprecisely used, word 'choice'." But we've been beating that mule for seven years, and it hasn't moved a lick yet.

Deo ac Veritati, indeed.

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