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.

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