Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Educators praise voucher defeat (2011 edition)

Everybody's heard Einstein's famous quote about insanity: it's defined as doing the same thing over and over again, expecting a different result. To my knowledge, Einstein never came to South Carolina, where our legislature could have schooled the fella.

Hasn't it been the case for the past decade?

We have, in Columbia, a Legislative Homeowners Association. What most of the neighbors have in common is shared wariness and a shared commitment to maintaining some minimum standards -- by minimum, I certainly mean "minimally adequate."

And in our neighborhood, we have a small gang of elected malcontents who aren't satisfied that South Carolina is already trapped in the Wayback Machine with the controls broken off at "Eisenhower."

By the front entrance to our neighborhood is a monstrosity on cinderblocks: our rusty, antiquated system of funding our public schools. Everyone sees it, with its dented 1977 license plate, its yellowed diamond-in-the-back, surrounded by patchy poke salad. It's a blot that gives the whole neighborhood a bad name. People from other neighborhoods -- yonder in Georgia and North Carolina and beyond -- see it and feel smug, superior, better than us.

Our Legislative HOA could fix matters altogether, of course. Raise HOA dues a little, based on property value, and have the decayed monster removed and replaced with something nice and functional. But nobody wants their dues increased, especially not based on property value.

Yes, to some degree, the HOA majority is ashamed of the decayed and neglected school-funding structure in their front yard, but they take so much pride in their live-and-let-live by-laws and covenants that they're loathe to take action, to change the rules, to rewrite the budget, to replace that rusted monstrosity with a school-funding system that works for all kids and their parents.

So the HOA does what it normally does: It pays to have more cinderblocks propped up beneath the chassis, so it doesn't completely fall down.

This, of course, angers the little gang of malcontents, who introduce bills year after year to eliminate the cinderblocks and pay parents to send their children to private schools.

And how does the HOA leaders handle the gang and its bills? They wait until the last minute, give the malcontents time to air out their year's-worth of wingnut angst, then drop the boom on the plan -- usually without a lot of fanfare.

And what happened last week at the State House? Seanna Adcox of The State reports it:

The latest plan to use tax credits to help parents send their children to private school died by slim margins Wednesday in the South Carolina House.

With no debate, representatives voted 60-59 to reject the measure. In a subsequent vote of 61-59, the House refused to reconsider - officially killing the bill. It was a stunningly swift vote on the contentious issue that keeps popping up in the Legislature.

The same bill was rejected a month ago by the Senate Education Committee, also with very little discussion. Senate Education Chairman John Courson said then that lawmakers knew where they stood philosophically on the issue.

And what did the malcontents say to this -- yet one more -- defeat at the hands of the bipartisan majority?

Despite the rejection in both chambers, the group pushing the effort pledges to return for another round.

"We're excited it got that close. We've always seen this as a long-term pursuit," said Neil Mellen, spokesman for South Carolinians for Responsible Government.

See what I mean about schooling Einstein on insanity?

Educators roundly praised the move. Jackie Hicks, president of the state's largest association of education professionals, The SCEA, credited educators themselves with pressing their lawmakers with facts and figures:

These victories in both houses of the Legislature, are the culmination of months of work by the members, leadership, and staff calling the disastrous consequences of this legislation to the attention of lawmakers, policy makers, the media and voters. This is a victorious end to an historic campaign. We spared no effort.

The SCEA campaign began by developing and leading a statewide coalition of civic, educational, and religious groups that were committed to quality public education. The SCEA then commissioned an independent poll of SC residents and learned that a whopping 64% of residents opposed sending millions of dollars to private schools at taxpayer expense.

Armed with this support, The SCEA president, vice-president and other members testified before both houses of the legislature. The SCEA submitted letters to the editor and op-ed articles to the state’s newspapers, noting that the bill would be too expensive and that South Carolina schools need reforms that are proven to work and will prepare our students for the jobs of the future.

Likewise, leaders of the state's association of school boards pointed to the influence of citizens who pressured lawmakers to face facts.

"The bipartisan vote sends a very clear and resounding message that the citizens of South Carolina are not interested in abandoning our public school students," Paul Krohne, executive director of the state School Boards Association, said in a statement. "If nothing else, this issue has galvanized those of us in South Carolina - and there are thousands - who reject the abandonment philosophy."

"The abandonment philosophy." We've come a long way, haven't we, from the same Eisenhower era that malcontents among us recall so fondly, when neighbor cared for neighbor? Today, it's every man for himself, and the most successful among are the ones who collect the most toys -- and who abandon the rest.

The State rightly pointed out the influence of "out-of-state money" fueling this issue. If NCLB has proven anything to the business community, it's that there's billions of dollars to be made in education, if education can be yanked out of the public domain and planted squarely in private enterprise. Privatizing school buses? That's child's play, a piker's game. Wait until public education is shut down and parents are forced into the private market for their children's education -- and the profits begin to roll like mighty waters. Pay attention: There's a reason that Australian billionaire and Fox News Channel owner Rupert Murdoch just purchased 90 percent of an education software company -- and vowed to use his News Corporation to make public education a high-priority issue in the 2012 presidential election.

It's hard not to remain a little skeptical about the timing of this entire ordeal.

At the end of 2010, Rupert Murdoch's News Corp paid almost $400m in cash to purchase 90% of Wireless Generation, a company that bills itself as "the leading provider of innovative education software, data systems, and assessment tools for reading, writing and math,"

On Tuesday, News Corp announced "The Future of American Education: A Presidential Primary Forum."

And lest we forget, voucher bills have always been about money -- not education.

The basics of the latest plan were the same as previous ones: The bill would give tax breaks to parents who can afford to pay tuition up front, while parents could apply for scholarships. The people and businesses that donate money for those scholarships could take the tax break.

The key differences were that the amount of tax credit or scholarship would vary by district, and that parents with children already in private school would get no break for several years, and then a reduced amount. The tax credit or scholarship would be tied to half of whatever the state spends on a public school student there. Next school year, the statewide average would be $2,417.

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 advocates said the average cost of tuition across more than 300 private schools statewide is $4,400.

And so long as the Legislative Homeowners Association honors its laissez-faire by-laws and covenants more than its commitment to funding a good education for every child, the malcontents will keep coming back. After seven years of trying, they've gotten a taste for it now.

“We’re gaining ground every year,” said state Rep. Bill Herbkersman, R-Beaufort, a tax credit supporter. “This was the closest vote yet.”

No comments:

Post a Comment