Wednesday, April 6, 2011

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.

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