Wednesday, April 6, 2011

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.

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