Friday, April 8, 2011

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.

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