Friday, April 8, 2011

Lawmakers avoid charges of heroism, advance private-school subsidies

In most state legislatures, a subcommittee is the first place a bill must weather -- and survive -- scrutiny from conscientious lawmakers. Of course, such a system depends entirely on the active engagement of conscientious lawmakers. In the exceptional republic of South Carolina, we have the lawmakers we have, conscientious or not, and they suffer no obligation to scrutinize anything before forwarding a suspect piece of legislation to the full committee for review.

This was the story of Wednesday's House and Senate hearings on the Sanford-Haley-Zais plan to divert public dollars from public schools and invest them in private and religious schools. The only scrutiny applied by subcommittee members, it appears, was to those individuals inveighing against the unaffordable, unaccountable and unnecessary proposal. Even the longtime legislative liaison from the state School Boards Association was attacked by legislators in the process.

At the end of the Senate subcommittee's "hearing," the group voted not to approve or disapprove the bill, but rather to "move the debate" to the full Senate Education Committee. By a vote of five to one, they represented beautifully the principle that elections have consequences.

The kicker?

Budget advisers estimate the latest version would save the state $2 million in the first year, but cost $6 million in the second year. The state's net loss would increase yearly to $133 million in 13 years.

These are the same state economists whose projections guide lawmakers in their choices to appropriate and cut state funding for various priorities. But in THIS case -- in THIS case -- the experts' numbers ran into a wall:

Advocates of the measure question the state economists' figures.

Because in the exceptional republic of South Carolina, fantasies trump facts.

Budget advisers say private school choice would eventually cost the state $133 million, not save money as advocates predict, but the new information didn't stop legislators Wednesday from advancing the measure to use tax credits to help parents send their children to private schools.

Here's another difference between subcommittees in other state legislatures and subcommittees in South Carolina: Elsewhere, the subcommittee level is where experts are summoned to answer questions ad nauseum about statistics, dollars, revenue projections and policy priorities before the subcommittee takes its position. In fact, some subcommittees meet again and again on a single topic, to allow multiple experts to bring data reflecting multiple points of view.

But in South Carolina, the subcommittee addressing public subsidies for private school tuition summoned its experts, who brought an "inch-thick report," then gave him -- the state's chief economist, no less -- time for only "cursory remarks" before getting to its business.

Phil Leventis, a Sumter Democrat and opponent, argued the latest version needed further study in subcommittee, particularly after the state's chief economist had time for only cursory remarks on an inch-thick report.

But Sen. Wes Hayes, the panel's chairman, said senators know where they stand on an issue that keeps resurfacing in the Legislature.

This is informative and should be dissected.

Hayes's first power as subcommittee chairman is to schedule the hearing in the first place. Subcommittee chairs who oppose a piece of legislation often exercise this power in the negative: They never schedule a hearing. But Hayes did. Does this mean he supports the plan to drain public dollars from public schools, and send them to private schools?

The subcommittee chairman's second power is to allot time, even to schedule additional hearings, so that all pertinent data is given full airing. But Hayes didn't do this; he allowed only time for "cursory remarks" from the state's chief economist, and he called for a vote at this hearing to "move debate" to the full committee. Does this mean he has little regard for the chief economist's expertise and projections, and little interest in hearing opposing viewpoints?

The subcommittee chairman's ultimate power is to recognize members' motions. Many's the time I've seen a subcommittee chairman ignore a motion loudly stated by a member, either to allow for more discussion or to subvert the member's clear intent. But in this case, Hayes entertained a motion -- NOT a motion to vote up or down the bill, which would clearly identify members' position on the bill -- but a motion to "move debate" to the full Senate Education Committee.

Not to succumb to too much hyperbole here, but I'm reminded of Matthew 27:24: "When Pilate saw that he could prevail nothing, but that rather a tumult was made, he took water, and washed his hands before the multitude, saying, I am innocent of the blood of this just person: see ye to it."

Is it possible that Hayes, acting on instructions from some higher power, scheduled the hearing, limited the input from the state's chief economist and entertained the motion to move debate just to get the bill out of his hands and off his shoulders? Or is it simply that Hayes supports the measure and chose to grease the wheels to move it as quickly as possible? Who can say for sure?

The basics of the latest proposal are the same: Parents who can afford to foot the tuition upfront could claim a credit on their state income taxes, while poor parents could apply for a scholarship for their child. The people and businesses that donate toward those scholarships take the tax credit. Homeschoolers could also take a $1,000 credit toward the cost of instructional supplies.

Budget advisers estimate the measure would save the state $2.1 million in the first year, but cost $6 million in the second, as revenue lost due to tax credits exceeds how much the state would save with fewer students to pay for in public schools. The state's net loss would increase yearly to $133.4 million in 13 years, when all students would be eligible.

Districts would receive an estimated $66 million less from the state initially, and $115 million by 2023-24, the report said.

How will this impact your school district? Even the imported anti-public-schools expert from the Cato Institute admitted it would impact children in public schools negatively:

"Districts do reduce spending when enrollment goes down," said Coulson, with the group that advocates for limited government and free markets, which could work up a separate report on the bill's impact.

Reduced spending means fewer classroom resources, larger class sizes, fewer extra-curricular activities.

At least one Senator saw irony in the Cato Institute's intervention in South Carolina's policies:

Leventis said he found it ironic that a group that advocates for free markets is pushing for government subsidies of private education.

Rainey: "Intoxication of power has overwhelmed Nikki Haley"

Anderson attorney John Rainey has a unique perspective on South Carolina: In 2001, he recruited former Congressman Mark Sanford of Sullivan's Island to run for governor. When Sanford was elected, Rainey accepted the governor's appointment to chair the state's Board of Economic Advisors, which seeks to guide lawmakers' decisions on the budget and economic decisions. Throughout Sanford's numerous missteps -- including the implosion of his personal life in 2008 -- Rainey stuck by him. But when Rep. Nikki Haley won election to the governor's office last year, Rainey saw the handwriting on the wall -- their economic philosophies are contradictory in that Rainey has one -- and he left the Board of Economic Advisors before he could be fired from it.

It turned out that his expectation of being replaced wasn't unfounded, as Haley demonstrated last month when she unceremonious dumped another longtime public servant -- financier Darla Moore -- from the University of South Carolina Board of Trustees.

That move -- and others, like being photographed attending to her iPad during a speech by President Barack Obama in the East Room of the White House -- has earned Haley national media attention. Bloomberg News Service has just published its own critique of our new governor and her early choices, and its reporters sought Rainey's input, which he happily gave.

“Darla Moore is a game changer and game changers don’t come along very often,” said John Rainey, a lawyer in Anderson and a Palmetto director. A Republican who led the state’s economic development board for eight years, Rainey said Haley showed arrogance in removing the university benefactor, in a telephone interview last month.

“The intoxication of power has overwhelmed Nikki Haley probably quicker than anyone I know,” said Rainey, who is financing a review of Haley’s work history.

Bloomberg focused much of its attention on the decision to remove Moore and noted that in an interview, Haley referred to Moore as just a "big pocketbook."

Darla Moore, a financier who had donated $70 million to the University of South Carolina, was taken off the board by Haley. She was replaced by Thomas Cofield, a lawyer who gave $4,500 to Haley’s campaign for governor, state records show.

“We are changing the way we fund higher ed, and I needed someone I could count on to fight for me,” Haley, 39, said in an interview. As for Moore, “a big pocketbook doesn’t need to be on the governing board because all of a sudden, the big pocketbook becomes the only voting member,” the governor said.

The report suggested that Haley has a history of forcing things to go her way, even in her personal life.

When she met her future husband at Clemson University, he went by Bill. She got him to start using his middle name, Michael, as he didn’t fit her image of a Bill. Now she’s Mrs. Michael Haley.

But the Moore decision -- and its aftermath -- illustrates something significant and yet undefined about Haley's character.

Haley said she replaced Moore, 56, a trustee since 1999, to make the board more responsive to her. By then, Moore had become the most-generous financial supporter of the university in its history.

Moore, an executive vice president at Rainwater Inc., the private investment company started by her husband, billionaire Richard Rainwater, declined to comment on the governor. She said that her commitment to the state and the university is unfazed.

“I’ve been working in this arena for 12 years,” Moore said in a telephone interview. She is a 1975 graduate of the university and a former Chase Bank managing director.

On March 24, after Haley had removed her as a trustee, Moore pledged another $5 million for the school to help set up an aerospace research institute. In a speech before hundreds of students in Columbia, she spoke about the board, improving educational opportunities in the state and leadership.

“Neither you nor I need to be on the board of trustees to make this happen,” Moore said. “We need simply to hold our leaders accountable and tell them we understand that they may not help us, they may not be able to help us -- but we demand that they not hurt us.”
Matching Funds

Moore, a South Carolina native, asked the state to match the amount for the aerospace center.

Haley opposed making the allocation in the state budget, and the House left it out of the spending plan it passed last month.

Which leaves us to wonder what could be Haley's message to South Carolina's students? And what will be her next move, and will it help or hurt an already battered and bruised state?

Spearman: Out-of-state interests governing our government

Molly Spearman, executive director of the South Carolina Association of School Administrators, was featured this week in the Orangeburg Times and Democrat, advising South Carolinians of the insidious influence of out-of-state ideologues governing us by proxy.

Public school supporters in communities across South Carolina need to know that the free-flowing funds from out-of-state interests are filtering through the State House and influencing the agenda on K-12 education. House and Senate members are being pressured by millionaires and in some cases, billionaires from across the country to put in place a program to give tax incentives for students to leave SC public schools. They say that the new program would save the state money and improve public education.

Should parents have the right to send their children to private schools with strong religious foundations? Yes. Should private groups and church organizers have the right to set their own school policies, admission requirements and classes for Christian, Jewish, Muslim, or any other religious training? Yes. Should they be able to hire uncertified teachers, give their choice of tests, diplomas, and select students based on whatever criteria they choose? Yes. The urgent question - Should public tax dollars and incentives support and subsidize these schools? No.

Proponents of the tax credit bill say, "Yes, parents have a right to choose and they should be helped with a tax incentive, especially those who can't afford the private school choice." When asked if the accepting private schools should be accredited and be required to adhere to same standards or oversight, the supports answer, "No, there should be no government intrusion, or additional requirements." That is why public tax dollars and incentives should not be given and why this legislation is a bad idea.

Many families want their children to be involved with religious training during the school day and that is fine. However, tax incentives should not support these religious programs. These same schools often evaluate the personal testimony and faith of potential students. That is fine; but, tax incentives and subsidies should not support these K-12 programs!

The legislation being debated in the House Ways and Means and Senate Education Committees this week also sets up scholarship programs that will be funded by businesses or citizens who direct their income and business tax dollars from the state general fund to send needy students to private schools. It is always a nice idea to help needy students; but, there are two major problems with the set-up. First, most needy at-risk students will not be able to meet the admission requirements of these private schools even if there were one located within walking or driving distance (transportation is not included). Secondly, this "scholarship gift" program will allow businesses or citizens to keep their taxes from going into the S.C. General Fund. That means millions of dollars subtracted from the pie to pay for health care, roads, highway patrolmen, and other safety needs. This is at a time that South Carolina is $700 million short in our state budget and cutting jobs, health care, and critical programs.

Similar voucher and tax credits have been in place for a while in Washington, DC, and Florida. Wisconsin just released a report on comparing student achievement after both private and public schools administered the same test. The students receiving the tax credit trailed the regular public school students.

Florida has had a wide-based program for several years and students there are scoring better on standardized tests. Proponents claim that the tax credit program is the reason. It may have had some affect as research has showed that the threat of vouchers and accountability cause school folks to work harder. However, Florida educators in the trenches say that the improvement is based on hard work, more time on task for at-risk students, strong reading intervention programs, after-school sessions, and tremendous professional development training for teachers and school leaders. Those are the "silver bullets" that really make a difference in student achievement.

A strong public education system is important to the future of our county, state, and nation. Everyone has a duty to support public education, whether you have a child in school or not. Shifting tax incentives to encourage students to leave the public system and allowing supporters to transfer their needed tax dollars to private school scholarships is a terrible idea - especially when our charter and regular public schools are struggling financially to exist. If you agree that this pending legislation is a bad idea, please contact your legislators now.

South Carolina ranks 42nd in nation in "peacefulness"

No one familiar with South Carolina's history finds this surprising: A new report issued by the Institute of Economics and Peace finds that our dear state ranks eighth from the bottom in "peacefulness," a composite of various statistical indicators. At first blush, this feels like a low blow.

But let's review:

(1) Charles Towne was settled by people who believed it was their right to enslave other human beings, and the philosophy spread.

(2) South Carolina's leaders introduced the idea of "nullification," the foolish notion that a single state -- ours -- could "nullify" or veto any federal law we didn't like.

(3) Eight years after South Carolina voters clearly and specifically indicated that they didn't want to secede from the Union alone, we were the first state to secede from the United States.

(4) Next week marks the 150th anniversary of the Civil War's first shots, at our own Fort Sumter.

(5) When the Constitution was amended to free slaves, establish citizenship for all native-born people and allow men of all races to vote, we adopted "black codes" to prevent it.

(6) When the Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional to bar minorities from voting in a state-sponsored primary, we passed more than 100 laws in a few days to pass the responsibilities for primaries from the state to political parties themselves, the system that still exists today.

(7) When the rest of the nation approved a Constitutional amendment to give women the right to vote in 1920, South Carolina didn't ratify the amendment for another 49 years.

(8) And when the Supreme Court overturned "separate-but-equal" and outlawed segregation in public facilities, we dragged our feet for more than a decade to give our wealthy citizens time to open their own "segregation academies."

(9) We never passed a statewide law to fund public schools until 1977, then funded the schools by its formula in only a handful of years since then.

In almost every aspect of life in our state, when we've had the opportunity to ensure a higher quality-of-life for all of our people, we've ignored the opportunity and abdicated our responsibility, deferring instead to the authority of our home-grown aristocrats and industrialists.

We are, ultimately, a self-identified republic of exceptions. If peacefulness were profitable, we would rank first in the nation. But it is not; there is profit in classism, caste and conflict; therefore we are expert at maintaining classes, caste and conflicts. Rankings such as the one from the Institute of Economics and Peace will find no traction here except among the chattering chattel.

With our review out of the way, what exactly does this report say?

The aim of the index is to “further understand the types of environments associated with peace, quantify the potential economic benefits of increased peacefulness, analyze the fabric of peace within the United States, and serve as a framework for additional studies,” the EIP said.

The index, which defines peace as “the absence of violence,” used such indicators as homicide rates, violent crimes, percentage of the population in jail, number of police officers and availability of small arms (per 100,000 people) to rank the states.

The data to construct the index was drawn from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, Federal Bureau of Investigation and Centers for Disease Control.

If the data were drawn from the number of retirees from elsewhere settling in South Carolina, or tourism dollars, or our low property tax rates, or the number of private and parochial schools, surely the data would have left our state in a better light. Therefore, I'm sure our leaders will declare the study skewed and the results invalid.

So, based on skewed data, here are the invalid results:

South Carolina is ranked 42 among the 10 least peaceful states. Nearby Georgia and North Carolina are 39th and 32nd respectively in the overall listing.

In all things good, we rank behind our neighbors. Same as it ever was; same as it ever was.

The USPI also found that a state’s ranking is strongly correlated with 15 socioeconomic factors, including high school graduation rates, infant mortality, access to basic services, labor force participation rates, and rates of poverty and teenage pregnancy.

Meanwhile, factors such as median income and a state’s political affiliation had no discernable impact on a state’s level of peace, the IEP said.

“The index underlines the negative impact of violence on our economy, and reinforces the idea that minimizing violence, through job creation programs and increased access to education and healthcare, dramatically increases the prospects for growth,” said Kerry Kennedy, president, Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights.

Didn't you suspect there would be a Kennedy involved?

“We should be mindful of this when proposing domestic discretionary spending cuts that will not only disproportionately impact those most vulnerable to violence and poverty, but will also hinder our collective prosperity,” Kennedy added.

“Peace translates into dollars and cents,” said IEP Founder Steve Killelea. “We have seen this in the findings of the 2010 Global Peace Index, where we found that a 25 percent reduction in global violence would free up $1.8 trillion USD annually.”

“We are seeing the same thing with the USPI. By increasing peace, the United States can ensure that these unrealized billions are available to reduce taxes, stimulate the economy or invest in the nation’s infrastructure, schools, communities, and small businesses,” Killelea said.

He said incarceration rates are not only a drag on the U.S. economy, but they also don’t necessarily equate to decreases in crime and violence, or an increase in a state’s peacefulness.

So long as peacefulness falls in the "expense" column rather than the "profit" column, these data will remain the same. That is, unless South Carolina voters get sick enough of our living conditions and elect leaders who think -- and govern -- differently.

Elwood: Punitive approaches illustrate lack of understanding

Columbia's Free Times features in its current edition a letter from Harvey Elwood, Jr., on the recent proposal to withhold drivers' licenses from students who drop out of school. Elwood pegs the measure as "punitive" and offers his own view:

Once again, the South Carolina House Education Subcommittee is considering a bill sponsored by Rep. Tom Young Jr., R-Aiken, designed to deny drivers licenses to students who miss seven unexcused days of school as a deterrent to keep them from dropping out.
Last year, I along with several good citizens questioned our legislative leaders and asked that a more proactive approach to the state’s dropout problem be considered. Several good proposals were submitted and we can only hope that a more sound and innovative approach will be considered.

The problem of high school dropouts is not new. However, across this nation programs exist that are working well to address this very troubling situation. Even cities like Columbia, under its new leadership, have come up with better ways of helping children succeed in making it through school — programs that inspire hope and provide real incentives for students to complete their education.

In my opinion, government must reach outside itself to find answers that produce the best result for our young people. Punitive approaches only show our lack of understanding the problem and our inability to deal with it. It’s just like a parent punishing a child as an alternative to better parenting or parenting skills.

How many subcommittee hearings have called in experts on this very issue? How many elected officials have visited programs making a difference in stopping students from dropping out?

It’s easy to be a reactionary; the real skill is to foresee issues before they become a problem — and when they do, to have the best possible plan available and show the best side of our creativity as leaders.

We can no longer punish children as the victims of a failed educational policy or system.
Instead, we must address our responsibility as adult leaders, educators and parents to fix those problems. After all, we can’t expect the children to fix something that was broken long before they got here.

Harvey Elwood Jr.
Orangeburg, S.C.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Sheaffer: "You are more than a number. And so am I."

The following letter -- simple and eloquent -- was posted at Education Week's Teacher Blog on Monday by Amanda Sheaffer, a third grade teacher in Nashville, Tennessee, and a credit to her profession.

To my students,
I greet you at the door with a smile, but I feel uneasy. I see your bright faces and hear your cheerful words with an inadvertent cringe. I am caught in a struggle between what I have been told to do and what you deserve. In my mind, I am clawing and scraping for solid ground, but I cannot find it.

I obey and trust the wisdom of an unknown authority whose face I cannot see but believe to be honorable. I follow, with your hand in mine, and ignore a call beckoning to me from my gut—this isn’t the right way. You come along without resistance, a partnership of blind trust and good will.

For a while I am able to maintain the integrity of our space. Academic rigor coexists with preparation for judgment day, and I meet your needs as individuals. But the crescendo of fear plays in my mind as the test steadily marches toward us. While I am proud of your achievement, I know it is too complex to be represented so simply.

Inevitably, I surrender to the pressure. I cannot serve two masters. I panic and reluctantly declare allegiance to that which holds the most power.

I proceed with infamous rituals of submission. I have you read lengthy irrelevant passages, practice strategies for multiple-choice items, and make marks that are suitably heavy and dark. You barely maintain attention, but I give you the you-can-do-it song and dance and promise fun times will follow. We suffer through this ridiculous charade, squeeze in a lesson of value with any remaining time, dismiss, and repeat in the morning. Caught in a trap I cannot define, I steal your time and give it away. I am afraid, but I continue on a mission to higher scores with determination and focus in the name of success for my school, for me, and for you, yet you do not look at me as though you feel successful.

I realize you are silent. It occurs to me that I barely recognize you. I feel uneasy again. Finally, I stop and look in the mirror. I choose to acknowledge my shame while I can still feel it. I must consider my character and decide to what extent I will participate. I sort through this confusion in search of resolve. Though the nation will applaud when your numbers rise, the cost is high. At my core, I am uncomfortable with the sacrifice required.

I am here with you and must make it my responsibility to speak your truth. You are not products to be homogeneously assessed and used as bragging rights. You are much more. Each of you is intricate, a contradiction to the implications of standardization. When given opportunities for curiosity, fascination, and discovery, your insights amaze me. When I offer you occasions to be brave in thought and expression, I am impressed by your abilities. You are smart, and you know that you could never tell the world who you are with a No. 2 pencil within the tight constraints of an itty-bitty bubble.

So as I look at my tired face in the mirror, I make my choice. I do not want to contribute to a system that limits you and expects so little, but if my only alternative is to abandon you, I will stay by your sides. I will steady my frustration and find a balance. I will prepare you for the test, but I will not forfeit your education. I will whisper as loudly as I can to you.

You possess unique qualities that are immeasurable. You are minds and voices unexplored, hotbeds of potential, a gift to your community.

You are more than a number.
And so am I.

Forward proudly and liberally.

Lawmakers ponder tax credits, economic resegregation

Here it comes.

On Monday, the right wing of the U.S. Supreme Court issued a majority ruling upholding Arizona's scheme to grant dollar-for-dollar tax credits for private or religious school tuition. The ruling means two things: Ideologues who oppose public education in legislatures across the nation are now free to adopt similar measures even if they contradict state constitutions, and parents who choose to send children to private or religious schools will have their choices subsidized by public funds.

Sure, the chattering class will say that my characterization is false, that a tax credit is not the same as a cash voucher. But Justice Elena Kagan put the lie to that dodge in her blistering minority dissent: There's no difference between a cash payment from the general treasury and a tax credit that diverts legitimate potential revenue from that treasury.

The ink isn't yet dry on the ruling, and voucher advocates in South Carolina are already on the case, as predicted.

After a two-year hiatus, proponents of private school choice are back before the S.C. General Assembly, pushing the fourth version of legislation that would use tax credits to help parents offset the cost of private tuition.

After enduring repeated defeats in the GOP-controlled legislature, advocates of the idea are touting a redesign in the amount of the scholarship or credit and in who's eligible. They hope the efforts will pick up support for an issue that has divided the GOP - and pumped money into mudslinging primary races - since former Gov. Mark Sanford rolled out the first plan in February 2004.

South Carolinians for Responsible Government, created in 2003 following Sanford's first inaugural, says it took a different tactic in drafting the latest proposal and reached out to public education groups such as the Education Oversight Committee.

"We said we needed to totally rethink this," said Neil Mellen, spokesman for the group backed by New York real estate investor Howard Rich, who vowed in 2008 to continue the push after Sanford's departure. "It resulted in a shift in what we wanted to pursue and how."

Not everyone is fooled by the wolf in Grandma's gown. Rep. Joe Neal, who spoke last month at State House rally in support of a moral budget, see through the new veil. "It's the same old retread. It simply has white walls this time," Neal told the Associated Press.

The basics of the latest proposal are the same as previous ones: Parents who can afford to foot the tuition upfront could claim a credit on their state income taxes, while poor parents could apply for a scholarship for their child. The people and businesses that donate toward those scholarships take the tax credit. Homeschoolers could also take a $1,000 credit per child toward the cost of instructional supplies.

Even parents who homeschool get in on the deal. That's one illustration of how far we've come from the first iteration of former Governor Mark Sanford's voucher plan from 2003, when he claimed the goal was to give children "trapped" in underperforming schools an escape route. Today, no one even pretends at that old canard: The present plan is a naked shift of funding from the public treasury to private and religious schools.

Another significant change is that the amount of the tax credit or scholarship would vary by district.
Tuition at the state's elite private schools can top $18,000 per student. Opponents have said the proposal is geared to well-off parents, since tuition would remain out of reach for poor students, even with a scholarship. But Mellen said the average cost of tuition across more than 300 private schools statewide is $4,400.

The plan also reveals that the principle of accountability -- the catchword of the past decade, used by the far right as a weapon against public schools and their defenders -- has been little more than a gimmick. With voucher opponents demanding the same accountability of private and religious schools benefiting from public dollars, voucher advocates say it's unnecessary.

Opponents also say private schools should have to be accredited to participate, and not just be a member of a reputable association, noting the state Association of Christian Schools doesn't require its members to be accredited.

Advocates of the bill say parents can decide what's best for their children.

"Accreditation sounds good, but it's not an end-all, be-all and doesn't necessarily mean a certain level of quality or accountability," Mellen said.

Whichever way the blade will fall, it's going to fall soon. Lawmakers have stacked up multiple hearings today on the matter.

South Carolina legislators are considering bills that would use tax credits to help parents send their children to private school.

House and Senate subcommittees will debate identical legislation Wednesday.

Republican Sen. Wes Hayes of Rock Hill says he expects senators to take a vote at his panel's third meeting on the issue.

The hearings were announced -- in the supremest of ironies -- on the same day that Governor Nikki Haley announced the availability of her brand-new "waste and fraud tipline."

A new hotline for state workers to report waste, fraud and abuse is up and running, Gov. Nikki Haley said Tuesday.

Calls to the hotline will be referred to George Schroeder, who Haley recently named to the newly-created post of state inspector general.

Schroeder has been charged with rooting out waste among the cabinet agencies that report directly to the governor.

"We have constituents who see waste, and they want to tell someone about it," said Gov. Haley. "We have state employees who see fraud and abuse, and they want to tell someone about it."

State employees can call 1-855-SC-FRAUD to anonymously leave a tip.

Psst. General Schroeder, I have a tip to share: I'm not naming names, but some high-level officials in state government are quietly implementing a plan to divert potentially millions -- ultimately hundreds of millions -- of dollars from the general treasury to benefit certain private-sector entities, without any oversight, regulation or accountability. There's reason to believe there's a quid pro quo element here, because certain high-level officials have collected a nice piece of change from contributors who may or may not stand to gain materially from the scheme. At a moment when South Carolina is suffering from poor-mouth already, we can hardly stomach such skimming as this. You may want to look into it.

If anyone questions your questions, just tell 'em you're educating South Carolina.

Krohne: Public funds for private schools an "irresponsible proposal"

Taking advantage of Governor Nikki Haley's new "waste and fraud tipline," I tried to leave a tip for Inspector General George Schroeder about the plan to divert potentially millions -- ultimately hundreds of millions -- of dollars from the general treasury to benefit private and religious schools without any oversight, regulation or accountability, but Dr. Paul Krohne of the South Carolina School Boards Association had already beat me to it.

"South Carolina’s public schools, charged with educating more than 700,000 of this state’s future employees and citizens, have never confronted challenges greater than the ones they face today," Krohne writes in the Anderson Independent Mail. "Budgets are being cut for the fourth straight year, reducing resources by nearly $1 billion. At the same time, student poverty, which makes the job of education significantly more difficult, has grown over the course of the recession, rising from 64 percent in 2006 to 76 percent today. Six out of every ten South Carolina schools now serve a student population in which 70 percent or more live in poverty."

Agreed. Add to this the asinine proposal to pay teachers according to student test scores on standardized tests, and you begin to get the feeling that there's a real, organized plan to dismantle public education entirely. But pay-for-test-scores is, on the surface, a separate issue. Krohne goes on:

Educators are being asked to do significantly more with dramatically less, but we are not alone. Budgets for all vital public functions — Medicaid, unemployment, mental health services, prisons and a host of others — have been stretched to breaking by the perfect storm of rapidly decreasing resources and rapidly increasing needs.

This year’s legislative proposal to supplement private education with public funds, dubbed the South Carolina Educational Opportunity Act, has been modified and renamed many times over the years, but none of the flaws that have made it unsupportable in the past have been resolved.

Its promoters maintain the pretense that the goal is to help poor students in what they refer to as “failing” public schools. That claim is as transparently misleading as ever. Private schools are still not required to accept the students they don’t want. There are still few to no private schools in the poorest rural areas of our state. There is still no transportation, the equivalent of no choice for the children of parents who lack the luxury of providing it themselves.

This is not, nor has it ever been, an education bill. It is a tax-credit bill to benefit families already wealthy enough to pay thousands of dollars in state taxes (less than 20 percent of families in South Carolina) and comfortable enough to pay tuition up front and wait until tax time for reimbursement.

Public accountability is still a problem. Private schools, not required to follow the same financial transparency and academic accountability measures mandated for public schools, would leave taxpayers with no information about how public money is being spent and no basis to compare their performance with public schools.

There is no better evidence today than seven years ago, when proposals were first offered, that vouchers are anything other than an expensive experiment. According to test scores released March 29 by the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, students who received vouchers to attend private or religious schools in Milwaukee performed worse on statewide reading and math tests than their counterparts in public schools. Other recent education studies of voucher programs in Washington, D.C., and Cleveland found no significant difference in the academic performance of students in voucher schools compared with public schools.

All of those flaws and more make this year’s version of private school choice legislation exactly what its predecessors have been: an attempt to subsidize private education for a privileged few at the expense of the majority who depend on public schools.

No fiscal impact statement has been developed for this year’s bill, but estimates of the cost of tax credit bills in the past have ranged from $84 million to $560 million.

Claims that tax credit legislation would save the state money have never passed the truth test. But any remaining doubt about the fiscal impact of this bill should have been dispelled by the recent testimony from the president of BB&T of South Carolina, who pledged up to $2 million in contributions for private-school scholarships during public hearings before House and Senate subcommittees. BB&T’s tax obligations, and the taxes of any individual or organization contributing to the scholarship funds, would be reduced on a dollar-for-dollar basis, draining millions from the state general fund.

Nothing now prevents any individual or organization from contributing money for any child to attend a private school. But at a time when South Carolina cannot begin to meet its existing obligations, funding private education at the expense of all state functions is an irresponsible proposal.

We cannot afford the huge expense of bailing out private schools or exempting parents who choose to use them from helping to fund the schools that serve us all.

We can’t afford more years of debate over a plan with no promise to help the vast majority of our children and no potential to contribute to a more prosperous future for our state.

Pickens board eliminates 87 positions, ignores corporate tax loopholes

Question: How does a career spent on Wall Street prepare one to lead an elected body which governs education policy, funding, and personnel matters? This is not a trick question, and there's likely not a rational answer to it. After all, this is South Carolina.

While state lawmakers are laying plans this week to dismantle public education from the top down, school boards across South Carolina are being pushed to accomplish the same objective from the bottom up. In Pickens County, for instance, the board voted on Monday to eliminate almost 90 positions to address the $5 million budget deficit. No help comes from the legislature in this matter, as its majority opposes public education specifically and government aid for public services generally. Remember, this is the legislature we elected.

Hopefully, the parents who spoke up on Monday are registered and fully aware of local and state candidates' platforms when next Election Day comes.

The vote came after the board received vigorous input from residents who nearly filled the Liberty Middle School auditorium to voice their disapproval of cuts to positions that could also affect programs.

“Education will level the playing field for all people,” Mary Kelly said. “I ask that you use your fiduciary judgment and make cuts where they least effect the students.”

The wise men of Pickens pulled the old "executive session" gambit, claiming privilege in order to discuss "cuts to individuals and positions," and to its credit, the Greenville News put up a spirited challenge to that game: "while talking about individuals qualified for a closed meeting, talking about positions did not." But the board's lawyer, Jane Turner, defended with logical jiujitsu, declaring, "eliminating certain positions would mean some individuals would either have to be 'moved or let go,' so they should not be discussed in a public meeting," the News reported.

Chairman Alex Saitta, who came under fire from members of the audience and some of the board members, said the approved plan represented a compromise.

“We had to eliminate positions,” Saitta said.

In point of fact, that was not the only option available to the venerable Pickens board and its chairman. Pickens County has a quite experienced and capable legislative delegation, whose experience and status in the legislative chambers surely inform them that a fiscal crisis may be addressed with budget cuts AND/OR revenue increases. If that delegation so chose, it could angle for such revenue increases from a variety of sources -- might I suggest closing some corporate tax loopholes? -- sufficient to ensure that no public employees would lose their positions in Pickens County. But Chairman Saitta did not mention this option to the News. Instead, Saitta promoted his "compromise."

To balance the current school year the district a year ago eliminated 105 positions. Saitta said the compromise would lower that number by about 20 percent. He also said “basically none” of the district’s classroom positions would be eliminated.

The district did not release any specifics on which positions would be eliminated until after individuals were notified. Superintendent Henry Hunt held out hope that not all the positions would be lost. “As we work through the budget we hope some things might improve,” Hunt said.

The board decision left the Simpson Academy and its programs intact, which was a major concern of many who attended the meeting.

This suggests that the board is entirely capable of establishing priorities; it simply chooses not to establish the entire district as a priority. I wonder if the board has issued any public statement or resolution entreating its state legislators and leaders to make choices that hold public services and employees harmless in the present budget morass? I'm not aware of one but would feel better knowing the board had adopted such a position.

And, because it's Pickens County, there was the requisite reference to the War of Northern Aggression on the anniversary of its commencement.

The public-input portion of the meeting culminated when former chairman Jim Shelton spoke out, seemingly aiming his comments at Saitta.

“Next month marks the 150th anniversary of the first shots in the War of Northern Aggression,” Shelton said. “It seems appropriate that in Liberty, the first shots against Northern aggression and Wall Street” have been fired.

Saitta is a New York native and worked on Wall Street before moving to South Carolina.

At least the reference was artfully made, and by a former board chairman, to boot. Well played, Mr. Shelton.

In recent weeks, the board and district staff have focused on personnel cutbacks, including school resource officers, guidance counselors and assistant principals.

Unnecessarily so, and unnecessarily jeopardizing the futures of Pickens County schoolchildren. What happened to the role of a school board as chief advocate for the children enrolled in its schools?

At least the districts' schools will remain safe, according to WYFF's reporting.

It appears school resource officers have been spared, according to Superintendent Henry Hunt.

"Right now with our (school resource program) looking at it we hope through the budget process they would be preserved," said Hunt.

When News 4’s Mandy Gaither asked about guidance counselors and assistant principals, Hunt said, “Well, looking at the whole picture of things there trying to come up with a balanced budget, we have to have some reductions and we'll be working with our individuals, notifying folks there about position eliminations."

Because children need protection but not guidance. Wars have been fought to preserve this very principle.

Chester editors stake themselves against cuts to school athletics

Speaking of wars and principles, the editors in Chester County sally forth with their own dour pleading on the subject of school budget cuts. Their plea: Save the games.

The Chester County School Board is faced with the daunting and unenviable task of finding ways to cut $2.5 million from the budget. That comes on top of other cuts the board has had to make in recent years. No matter what area is the target of a cut someone, whether it be a teacher or a student, will be worse off because of it. That's the reality, painful as it is.

Editor's note to editors: Chester County does not go without representation in the General Assembly, that august body which alone has the constitutional authority to close corporate tax loopholes and thereby raise sufficient funds to preserve every single position and program now being eyed for elimination. I would expect the editors of the county's newspaper to be well-acquainted with these representatives and have easy access to them, not to mention the power of the press with which to voice sentiments to this effect.

As to the editors' plea:

One possible cost-saver mentioned at a school board meeting last week was the elimination of some athletic programs. Not ever sport is a money maker or even self-sustaining. Uniforms, helmets, pads, coach's pay and gas for the bus all cost money, sometimes a lot of it. It's understandable that when savings have to be realized, every area has to be looked at, especially those that are not directly involved in classroom learning.

Still, we hope other alternatives can be found.

Sports serve a very valuable purpose to students. The federal government is focusing on anti-obesity campaigns for young people now. Regular exercise, which sports provide, is obviously part of the equation where keeping young people is concerned. The benefits of sports go far beyond a fit body, however.
We know of some students who only give effort in the classroom because they want to stay eligible for athletics. Obviously their priorities are not in order, but if the want to play basketball or football leads to a student getting a diploma, it is worth it.

Respectfully, many things are regrettable in these suppositions.

First, the appeal to good health as a justification to preserve high school athletics programs is laughable, and especially the invocation of First Lady Michelle Obama's anti-obesity campaign, as South Carolina ranks consistently as a national leader among states in numerous indicators of poor health. Ensuring the good health of the poor and working class has never been a priority of the state's aristocracy; have we forgotten we're less than a century removed from the pellagra epidemic of the Upstate's mill villages? High school athletics programs by themselves haven't yet overcome generations of damage from the old three M's: meat, meal and molasses. It's unlikely that preservation of those programs this year will accomplish it.

As for "some students who only give effort in the classroom because they want to stay eligible for athletics," I wonder how the editors typed the words with a straight face, considering the long tradition of newspaper editors in this state -- conservative and progressive -- who appropriately prized and promoted education for its own sake. N.G. Gonzales, assassinated founder of The State, would blanch at the reluctance of today's editors to fight for anything less. And thankfully for the longtime Charleston Post and Courier's editor,
W.W. Ball, education provided him and many others their ladder to achievement when his athletic capacity never matched his athletic ambition. Familiarity with Shakespeare and the Romans by age nine, on the other hand, served him masterfully for a lifetime. Whose responsibility is it today to inculcate the same philosophies in modern youth? Do not our editors play a part?

They continue, and their rationale improves slightly:

Chester County is blessed to have coaches that put a pretty high premium on academics. Many teams have mandatory study halls that force players to spend time learning. Partly because of coaches making athletes spend as much time hitting the books as hitting the blocking sled, the number of county athletes earning college scholarships has jumped precipitously in recent years. Our three high schools have sent football, basketball, baseball and softball players, not to mention swimmers and rodeo participants, to colleges and universities as far away as Missouri, Alabama, New York and California. Not all of those students would have had the chance to further their education without those athletic scholarships.

It is true enough that colleges and universities award athletics scholarships, and that these scholarships draw students into their freshman years at some colleges and universities. But as discretion is the better part of valor, let's stop there before gilding lilies; not every college freshman on an athletic scholarship makes a college graduate. I would propose to compare their graduation rates with students on academic scholarships -- or students sans scholarship -- but we're far enough afield already.

There are lessons to be learned on the field of play too, like hard work, determination and teamwork. We've seen more than a few students over the years who have attitude and academic problems get completely turned around about the discipline they learn playing a sport. We had a story a few weeks back about the rise of gang activity in Chester. Gangs often prey on young people who want to have a sense of belonging to something. It is certainly preferable for a kid to belong to a high school sports team than the Bloods.

Gang activity can be addressed with sufficient attention to provisions for law enforcement, yet another issue that Chester's legislative delegation might appropriately address. The field of play isn't the only, or even the best, venue for lessons in character. No one argues the preferability of keeping a student in school and out of gangs; perhaps attention to early childhood education programs would obviate the need suggested by the editors for high school athletics to serve the purpose.

The editors blessedly state the obvious:

Athletics certainly can't take precedent over academics, since learning and preparing for life beyond graduation is really what students are supposed to get out of school.

If only they left well enough alone.

Maybe the board can come up with some creative solutions, like a dollar-or-so increase in ticket prices to attend games. Whatever the ultimate decisions are, we hope cutting athletics at our schools is a last resort.

Legislative wrecking crew uses small hammers first, says SC Radio Network

Reporter Matt Long of the South Carolina Radio Network took note this week of several small changes to education policies that make incremental progress on the road to dismantling public education as we know it.

One of the changes listed by Long is a plan to exempt school districts from various state regulations, including -- you guessed it -- personnel cuts, or "several mandates the state requires that cost schools extra money for additional teachers and other faculty."

School district employees are no longer necessary to the instructional process; nowadays then just "cost schools extra money."

It’s hard to cut expenses when your biggest expenses are… salaries. You’ve got to have all of these people there who may, or may not, be classroom-related. You can free some of that up. That’s the thinking behind it.

Especially when parents expect the professionals in their children's classrooms to be certified: That costs even more money, so it shouldn't be required at all.

Under the bill, districts would apply for permission from the state Department of Education to exempt themselves from certain regulations, such as physical education or requiring certified teachers in non-core classes.

Why demand a certification from teachers in non-core classes? You really only need your core teachers to be certified. It's like saying that so long as the surgeon operating on your heart is certified, the nurses and anesthesiologist don't have to be. Certified anesthesiologists add unnecessary expense to the bill -- as do unnecessarily certified dental assistants, and paralegals, and commercial contractors.

Another big change is to the window-dressing of the budget's education section, if you believe taking down the heirloom drapes and replacing them with a fleece blanket is an appropriate change to the window-dressing.

The House passed a bill in early March that would simplify how the EFA funds districts, by eliminating lines in the budget and giving more to schools in five lump sums. That proposed change has already passed the House and is currently in the Senate.

This is exactly what former Governor Mark Sanford proposed several years ago, in the name of flexibility. In fact, Sanford's definition of flexibility included overall cuts to programs. If legislators are taking up Sanford's old proposal, it means two things: Schools will have fewer dollars to spend on teaching children, and lawmakers subconsciously wish Sanford was still in office.

Yet another proposed change: "Diploma" will no longer mean "diploma."

When I went to school, it was an article of faith in my family that I would graduate with a high school diploma. To fail that standard would mark my family with a stain of shame that would never come clean. I labored mightily to achieve it -- this means you, Algebra II -- and was exhausted, drained of all color and energy, when I marched with my class and collected that DIPLOMA. When I finally got a look at the real McCoy, I was surprised that it wasn't gilt-edged or gold-leafed.

According to Long's report, the "diploma" of today could be any one of several things -- like numbered "combo" options at a fast food restaurant -- from a "certificate of attendance" to the super-sized cheeseburger with fries and a jumbo Cherry Coke.

Right now, all students have to complete 24 credit units in order to graduate. However, Cooper said that was designed for students going to college.

He said officials are looking to create an alternative track for students who don’t plan to go to a four-year school.

"For kids who just want to go straight to work, or want to go to (technical college), or learn a trade, they can get a 20-unit diploma. That saves some money… for the districts, but it also would help with kids who drop out. They might go if they’ve only got to get 20 (credit units), instead of 24, to finish their degree."

He said legislators are also looking at creating a new diploma for special needs students, who are only presented with a “certificate of attendance” at the end of their high-school careers, regardless of how far they advance.

Does this mean there will be separate graduation ceremonies? Not likely, thanks to the present fiscal crisis.

Retired educator defends public employee pensions

In what society must we defend the rights of retired public educators and other employees to their pensions?


Retiree Martha Serensits of Ocean Isle Beach, North Carolina, had a great letter published in the Myrtle Beach Sun-News on Sunday, and it's well worth re-posting here, to give moral support to our own beleaguered retirees and close-to-retirees.

In response to an antagonist's text published on March 17 in the same paper, Serensits writes,

Mr. Litz, I am very sorry that your pension has remained the same for 20-some years. Perhaps if you had a union representing you, you might have had the opportunity to contribute to your pension fund and receive cost of living adjustments. You see, contrary to what you seem to believe, I contributed 7 percent of my gross salary to my retirement fund for 30 years. As a retired educator, this allowed me to receive 60 percent of the average of my top three years with unlimited cost of living adjustments. (By the way, last year that was calculated at minus-3.5 percent; consequently, we did not receive a cost of living raise and this year our increase is 1.24 percent) I also pay $600 a month for my health insurance.

My retirement is not a "gift" from the taxpayers of my state. Teachers in my state (as in most) were promised better benefits in exchange for accepting lower wages as public employees. (By the way, the retirement system to which I belong has not been an option for teachers in my district since 1980.)

Also contrary to the prevailing attitudes, teachers do not receive vacation pay, paid lunch hours, overtime, differential, etc. Teachers are paid for those exact days that they work (usually 185). That pay can either be spread over 10 months or 12 months. It is still only pay for 185 days of work. Teachers work, at school, a seven-hour day. This does not include nights and weekends doing lesson plans, grading papers and going to school themselves, as well as covering athletic events and extra curricular activities.

Teachers in our district (as in most) are required to continue their education, specifically to achieve a master's degree or its equivalent in five years or have their pay frozen. (Have you paid for college lately?) They must then continue their education in order to keep their certification current. Vertical movement on the pay scale is dependent on years worked and education.

It is truly amazing to me that the Fox News pundits can talk about bankers on Wall Street who created this economic mess and put us on the brink of a depression; how "critical" is it to retain the "brightest and the best" on Wall Street and how we have to pay them outrageous sums of money and must honor their contracts and yet, when it comes to dedicated teachers, many of whom have second (and sometimes third) jobs just to feed their families, they refer to them with disdain and speak of how they are on the "gravy train" and "fleecing" the public. Wonder if those Wall Street bankers ever thanked their teachers?

I thank mine, by God, all the time.

And thank you, Ms. Serensits.

Garrick identifies hypocrisies in South Carolina's budget proposal

Lodging charges of hypocrisy in South Carolina's budget is almost too easy -- like shooting fish in a barrel -- but I have to promote the interesting perspective of freshman Rep. Mia Butler Garrick, whose reflection on the recent two-day House budget debate is insightful. You can read the whole essay here but she names four obstacles to South Carolina's progress: the "good ol' boy system," the waste of time, the "lack of political courage" and lawmakers' "rhetoric."

Garrick offers suggestions to ameliorate our collective condition:

We could start by repealing Act 388, at least considering the Taxation Realignment Commission’s recommendations or rethinking last year’s unemployment insurance increase.

And if we’re serious about shrinking government, let’s not create new positions such as inspector general or a new agency such as the Department of Administration while maintaining the Budget and Control Board. Consolidating agencies is a great idea, but only if it saves money, eliminates duplication and streamlines services.

I support government restructuring because I believe South Carolina needs true government reform. I’m just not convinced that our efforts in the budget the House just passed truly accomplish that.

She critiques the budget debate as "unbelievably short" and uncorks on the bill's inherent hypocrisies:

I voted against it because our priorities are misaligned. There are a few positives, such as an increase in base student funding for education, $25 million for public charter schools and $10 million for the Department of Commerce’s deal-closing fund to help recruit new businesses to South Carolina.

But there are numerous hypocrisies: Creating a new government agency and new positions while saying we’re not growing government. Funding large salary increases in the governor’s office while cutting essential programs and services. Reducing access to quality, affordable health care while turning federal money away that could expand access and save jobs.

During our budget debate, the majority rejected a federal 3-to-1 return on state tax dollars that could bring millions to the state and save jobs that we desperately need right now. Meanwhile, hard-working South Carolinians are losing their jobs, their homes, their health care, their quality of life — making it difficult even to survive the current economic conditions, let alone thrive.

And while the establishment successfully incited fear across South Carolina in anticipation of more devastating cuts this year, the reality is that we have again balanced the state’s budget on the backs of hard-working middle-class South Carolinians who can least afford it.

As a student of our state's tortured history, I regretfully submit that the only way to change our malignant system is through a constitutional convention. History demonstrates that only those overhauls to our foundation document have yielded significant change in the past. But I am immeasurably loathe to support that option, because I suspect the physicians at hand would render a cure deadlier than the illness.

No, South Carolina's salvation lay another two or three generations ahead.

School budget cuts threaten for-profit and non-profit programs

A little-known bit of No Child Left Behind, a law still inflicting harm well past its expiration date, was a provision forcing school districts labeled "low-performing" for three consecutive years to devote 15 percent of its federal funds to private-sector "supplemental education services" programs. It hadn't occurred to me before reading this morning's Greenville News that in a time when federal funds for public education are running out and none come from the stingy state to replace them, those private entities who profited marvelously only a few years ago from public funding might now be starving, too.

Today's News mentions a "privately funded organization" offering summer courses at Travelers Rest High School, and the organization's dire straits in perilous budget times. I have no idea whether the program, "Graduate Greenville," was one of the supplemental education service programs funded by NCLB, but budget cuts do appear to be negatively impacting its business.

Graduate Greenville provides graduation coaches in five high schools in Greenville County who help more than 200 students who were at risk of dropping out.

Whether it will be able to continue operating in that many schools, however, is in doubt, as the organization faces a shortfall in funding from foundations and private donors hard hit by the recession, said Ted Hendry, president of the United Way of Greenville County and a member of the Graduate Greenville board of directors.

"We have confidence that we will be in at least one school going forward," he said. "And we will be working from April to December to identify funding sources for beyond the 2011-12 school year."

Welcome to the world that public educators have inhabited for their whole lives. It's a sad day when the state's aristocratic ideologues stop funding their pet programs in the private sector.

Begun in 2005, Graduate Greenville was born out of a collaboration among the school district, the United Way and the independent, nonprofit booster organization Public Education Partners, formerly the Alliance for Quality Education. Its goal was to improve the high school graduation rate in Greenville County, said Marge Scieszka, director.
The program costs about $485,000 for five sites, $150,000 of which comes from the United Way, Hendry said.

That's a pretty penny for services already available for free through the public school system -- or that would be available for free if budget cuts didn't rule them out.

But this is a nice example of the ideology that opposes public education and its services. There is an element among us that believes any service provided at no cost by government agency could be offered by private enterprise instead, and garner a profit, if the government would remove itself from the free market.

What services are we talking about? The News outlines them when it mentions one of the enterprise's employees:

Perry works individually with each of his 54 students about once a week and meets with them as a group every few weeks, he said. He also works with their families, and their teachers, in addressing the issues that have put them at risk of dropping out.

He checks their attendance, grades and behavioral records and works with them to develop the communication skills, study skills and organization skills they need to survive in high school, he said.

If memory serves, this describes the very services offered by school social workers, when they were funded. I wonder what was the profit margin for the "privately funded organization" providing "Graduate Greenville"?

Some students who consider dropping out are dealing with problems at home, or financial problems, Perry said.

But "sometimes it's somewhere along the line they did not get the basics in math and English and it's very difficult for them," he said.

Beyond helping them get caught up on academics, he tries to show his students the possibilities for their lives and give them a sense of the value of sticking with school.

A sign on his classroom door gives notice that "No Slackers" are allowed and lists the positive attributes for success, such as being a "problem solvin', positive thinkin', example settin'" person.

The slangy jargon is an added attraction, I suppose. But I wonder what's meant when " 'no slackers' are allowed." Does the program give "slackers" the boot? I wonder what that's like, as public schools don't have the luxury to send "slackers" home.

But this is quite familiar:

"Sometimes just getting them to understand the importance of why they're here is the biggest part of my job," he said. "Motivation is a key factor, and it can be a very difficult thing to convey to a teenager sometimes."

Ask a retired public school teacher for tips. Better yet, pay a retired public school teacher for his or her advice. Since they're no longer public employees, I'm sure their expertise would be worth a retainer fee in the private sector.

The Graduate Greenville board will meet this month to decide what it will be able to fund for the 2011-12 school year, said Grier Mullins, a board member and executive director of Public Education Partners.

"We've applied for grants. We hope to get some," she said. "We do need to get more funding to continue the program at more than one school."

Good luck with that. The education business isn't what it used to be, back in the golden age when it wasn't a business.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Katy, bar the door: Court offers 'roadmap' for private school vouchers

One more illustration that elections have consequences.

Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court issued the infamous Citizens United decision which overturned century-old precedent and now allows corporations to spend unlimited sums in their support for, or opposition of, candidates for public office. To the corporate elite for whom a million dollars here or there represent mere rounding errors, Congressional seats come cheap. My hundred dollars -- or OUR few thousand dollars, collected over a period of time -- cannot compete with a single transfer of ten or twenty millions of dollars into a single race.

But the ruling issued by the Roberts Court today is just as deadly to state treasuries and to public education as we know it. I'm confident that the far right's instruments in Columbia have spent today as spiders weaving, getting at their knitting with furious abandon, and tonight are toasting behind the oak doors. They know what the rest of us don't understand yet: A massive piece of change is about to come to South Carolina.

Here's NPR's Nina Totenberg's summary:

A deeply divided U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday that taxpayers have no legal right to challenge a tax break worth millions to donors supporting private religious schools. The 5-4 decision left intact an Arizona tax subsidy that was enacted because the state constitution forbids direct aid to religious schools.

Arizona is one of many states that has a state constitution barring direct aid to religious schools, including vouchers. These provisions date back more than a century.

South Carolina's Constitution includes the same prohibition in Article XI:

SECTION 4. Direct aid to religious or other private educational institutions prohibited.

No money shall be paid from public funds nor shall the credit of the State or any of its political subdivisions be used for the direct benefit of any religious or other private educational institution. (1972 (57) 3193; 1973 (58) 44.)

This simple statement has been a staple of the opposition to voucher and tuition-tax-credit proposals from former Governor Mark Sanford and his successor. But while South Carolina has not adopted any law in open defiance of this principle, Arizona did, and taxpayers in that state sued. Their case is the case on which the Court ruled today.

To get around the ban on vouchers, Arizona enacted a law that allows residents to take a tax credit for money given to a private school scholarship funds known as a "school tuition organizations."

A tax credit is different from a tax deduction. The credit comes directly off the tax bill on a dollar-for-dollar basis, so a $500 donation to a school tuition organization allows the donor to take $500 off his owed taxes. In contrast, a charitable donation of $500 to a private school would be worth no more than one-third of that amount in tax deductions.

This means every $500 that is given to a "tuition organization" is $500 directly diverted from the state's treasury, dollar for dollar. How great an impact could this become?

Consider that any corporate interest can open a nonprofit "tuition organization" -- Sanford named them "scholarship granting organizations," or SGOs -- and that corporate interest might (if it pays corporate income taxes to South Carolina at all) owe the state $10 million in corporate taxes this year. If it chooses to do so, it can contribute $10 million to its own "tuition organization" and parcel those funds out as vouchers to private or religious schools instead, and take the entire amount off their tax bill as a "credit."

The loss of that $10 million to the state treasury means either that our wise lawmakers will cut $10 million from public services -- including, surprise! public schools -- or you and I will have to make up the $10 million through additional taxes or fees. The winners in this formula are, as usual, the ideological corporate elite, and their pet private or religious schools.

Do you imagine that it won't happen in South Carolina? It already did in Arizona.

Under the Arizona law, more than $50 million was donated annually to student tuition organizations, which, in turn, directed the money to private schools, at least two-third of them religious schools.

A group of taxpayers challenged the tax credit in court, contending that it amounted to an unconstitutional state subsidy for religious schools.

But on Monday, the Supreme Court ruled that the taxpayers have no legal right to bring such a challenge.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the five-justice majority, said that taxpayers may challenge a direct legislative appropriation for religious schools, but not a tax credit. He conceded that a tax credit and a direct government expenditure "may have similar economic consequences," but he said a tax credit is different because any injury to the disagreeing taxpayer is "speculative," and the money is directed by private individuals, not the state.

Not one but two new principles have come from this ruling: (1) that a state like South Carolina is now free to allow corporations and wealthy individuals to divert funds before those funds arrive in the treasury to private schools through vouchers, and (2) ordinary taxpayers have no legal standing to challenge such legislation in court. We're barred from the discussion, you and I, and no key will let us back in the door.

Civil libertarians reacted to the decision with dismay. Arizona State University law professor Paul Bender, who represented the Arizona taxpayers, says the court's opinion defies reality.

"The state has a budget deficit of a billion dollars, so when $100 million doesn't come into the Treasury, the rest of the state's taxpayers have to make up for that," he says. "The idea that [the tax credit] doesn't affect the rest of the state's taxpayers is just fantasy."

Again, elections have consequences.

Justice Elena Kagan, in a blistering dissent — her first dissent since joining the court — said Monday's decision "devastates" the ability of taxpayers to challenge government actions that favor religion.

In reality, she said, there is no difference between a tax credit and a direct appropriation. "What is a cash grant today can be a tax break tomorrow," and the court's decision, she charged, "offers a road map — more truly, just a one-step instruction — to any government that wishes to insulate its financing of religious activity from legal challenge."

The Court's ruling, NPR reports, "follows a 2007 decision that barred challenges to President George W. Bush's faith-based initiative because it used discretionary funds in the executive branch." Again, taxpayers are barred by the court from challenging the decisions of its elected government in court.

Civil libertarians suggested on Monday that the ruling in that case, combined with the Arizona ruling, has the effect of eroding the constitutional separation of church and state.

But Stanford University law professor Michael McConnell says these decisions "probably [do] not change the ultimate outcome of any cases," given the current Supreme Court's more accommodating view of church and state.

Dismissing the challenges on the basis of legal standing, rather than on the merits, he says, "just means [the cases] are going to be resolved at a slightly earlier stage in the litigation."

University of Michigan law professor Douglas Laycock isn't so sure. He argues that the ruling opens another — and more politically appealing — avenue for legislators to support religious schools.

Although the Supreme Court upheld school voucher programs nearly a decade ago, he notes most states have not adopted voucher programs because they cost the state money.

"It is mostly Republicans who support these aid-to-religion programs, and Republicans don't want to raise taxes to pay for vouchers," Laycock says. "But if they can do it through a tax credit, they can support religious schools and claim it's a tax cut all at the same time."

The New York Times added a bit more detail, but not much.

“Awarding some citizens a tax credit allows other citizens to retain control over their own funds in accordance with their own consciences,” Justice Kennedy wrote for himself, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr.

That may be well for the Court, but the ruling also -- wittingly or otherwise -- establishes in law that we now have, dare I say it, two Americas: one for the wealthy corporate elite whose ideology leads them to promote the dismantling of public services and public schools, and one for the rest of us whose combined wealth cannot buy equal justice, and who rely upon public services and public schools to give a foundation to our democracy.

The plaintiffs’ position, Justice Kennedy wrote, “assumes that income should be treated as if it were government property even if it has not come into the tax collector’s hands.”

I've heard it said often that to avoid paying taxes is no crime, but to evade paying taxes is. What the Court has declared today is that for those wealthy enough, tax evasion is legal, too.

Don't believe that elections have consequences? Read more of Kagan's dissent and imagine what might have happened it she'd been elevated to chief Justice rather than Roberts.

In her dissent in the case, Arizona Christian School Tuition Organization v. Winn, No. 09-987, Justice Kagan said the majority’s position was an elevation of form over substance. “Taxpayers experience the same injury for standing purposes,” she wrote, “whether government subsidization of religion takes the form of a cash grant or a tax measure.”

She offered examples. “Suppose a state desires to reward Jews — by, say, $500 per year — for their religious devotion,” she wrote. Would it matter to taxpayers offended by the practice whether the reward came in the form of a government stipend or a tax credit?

“Or assume,” she wrote, “a state wishes to subsidize the ownership of crucifixes” in one of three ways. It could purchase them in bulk and distribute them; it could reimburse buyers with a check; or it could pay with a tax credit.

“Now, really — do taxpayers have less reason to complain if the state selects the last of these three options?” Justice Kagan asked.

Justice Kagan said the majority’s opinion was particularly surprising because the court had never thought the point even worth arguing over. “To the contrary: We have faced the identical situation five times — including in a prior incarnation of this very case! — and we have five times resolved the suit without questioning the plaintiffs’ standing,” she wrote.

Justice Kagan acknowledged that people would sometimes continue to have standing of the more traditional sort to challenge government spending on religion. In other cases, though, she wrote, Monday’s decision “will prevent federal courts from determining whether some subsidies to sectarian organizations comport with our Constitution’s guarantee of religious neutrality.”