Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Herald-Journal: "Public education is not some leftist tenet"


Why does it take a potential electoral crisis -- six Upstate lawmakers appear to be in hot water for their votes against the most recent iteration of ye olde Sanford-Haley voucher scheme -- for one of the state's daily newspapers to make such a plain and clear defense of public education in South Carolina?

Similarly, why does it take such a crisis for one of our daily papers to openly defy the anti-public education group "South Carolinians for Responsible Government"?

SCRG, whose funding is believed to have roots in New York City and elsewhere (so says A, and B, and C, and D, and E, and F), has played The Woman Scorned since the legislature in May defeated the 2011 version of the same old voucher (or tuition tax-credit, take your pick) plan that Governor Mark Sanford first tried to sell us in 2003. It appears that some of Spartanburg's own lawmakers, including some who have, at one time or another, advocated some sort of school reform, and who may even have accepted campaign donations from pro-voucher sources, are among those who voted down the voucher plan. So these have been branded with their own numerific label -- the ominous "Spartanburg Six," like the "Fab Four" or the "Dirty Dozen" -- and the modern Red Shirts are out for revenge in the name of ideological purity.

It's this purity that the Herald-Journal's editors take up in yesterday's edition, writing, "It’s an odd assertion that a 'true conservative' is someone who wants the government to subsidize private education and that those who want to protect the public schools are somehow phony conservatives."

Indeed, the earliest South Carolinians who advocated for free public education for all of its children were conservatives -- and pro-business conservatives, at that.

But that’s the allegation six Spartanburg lawmakers are facing. They voted against the latest school voucher scheme and fell afoul of the groups established with out-of-state money to push this agenda in South Carolina. They also angered some tea party groups that are quick to believe any allegation of phony conservatism.

The truth is that the Spartanburg Six — Reps. Rita Allison, Steve Parker, Eddie Tallon, Mike Forrester, Derham Cole and Doug Brannon— did the right thing.

The measure billed as “school choice” would not have opened up new choices to parents or children. Its overall effect would have been to make private school more affordable for parents already able to make that choice. It offered such parents a tax credit to help pay the tuition. Poor parents, who can’t pay the tuition up front and don’t make enough money to take advantage of the tax credit, would have been left out in the cold. The bill offered them only the unlikely promise of privately financed scholarships.

The bill would not have improved any schools. It would have taken scarce resources away from the public schools, and it would have eroded the independence of private schools. Government money always comes with government strings. If this voucher bill had passed, it would have been only a matter of time before the General Assembly applied its accountability system and school report cards to private schools. Lawmakers would have declared that the state could not be subsidizing private schools without holding them accountable. Sooner or later, private schools would have to adopt the same tests and curriculum as public schools.

It’s time to get past the lie that parents who pay to send their children to private schools pay for education twice, or that they pay for schools they don’t use. The truth is that we do not pay taxes to support public schools solely to educate our own children. We support a public school system so that we can live in an educated society. We support a public school system because the alternative is an illiterate populace, rampant poverty and a hopeless future.

This has to be the most rational editorial published by the Herald-Journal in recent memory. And though it doesn't name SCRG, the editorial may as well be an open letter to that group and its out-of-state sponsors.

The Spartanburg Six voted to protect the public schools because they recognize that there is no reasonable alternative. It’s not because they don’t want parents to have choices, but they recognize that there will be no free-market utopia where tax credits allow all parents the choice between excellent private academies and the government is out of the education business. That plan simply isn’t realistic.

The Spartanburg Six are not slaves to the teachers’ unions or some liberal agenda. Public education is not some leftist tenet. It is not some new liberal invention. It’s the method this nation has used for generations to create the success we have had. That system isn’t perfect. Our schools are struggling in many ways, but voucher schemes like the one rejected by the Spartanburg Six would not help.

Read these words again: "Public education is not some leftist tenet. It is not some new liberal invention. It’s the method this nation has used for generations to create the success we have had."

What a statement, a declaration of the true good that went into establishing public education and the true good that has come -- and continues to come -- from public education. So I repeat my question: Why does it take a potential electoral crisis for one of the state's daily newspapers to make such a plain and clear defense of public education in South Carolina?

I hope that every district superintendent in South Carolina sends a printed copy of this editorial to every principal, teacher, secretary, custodian, cafeteria worker and bus driver in South Carolina with a thank-you note, as an illustration that there is a strain of common sense and decency that runs underground in our state, that the thankless work our public school personnel do is important, and that the occasional and slight scraps of support issued by a public voice ought to be held up and celebrated. Give the editors of the Herald-Journal some positive reinforcement for their declaration, whatever their motivation, and they may feel courageous enough to say it again, and again.

Contact the editors here (area code 864):

Horeth, Chris - Perspective, letters to the editor Phone: 562-7267
Parris, Lou - Stroller Phone: 562-7204
Smith, Michael - Executive Editor Phone: 562-7200

On the same day, in the same edition, the same editors invited Rep. Doug Brannon to publish a column explaining his choice to oppose the voucher scheme. It, too, bears reading, and Brannon deserves the same thanks for standing up for public schools.

If the legislature hadn't gone to such a Byzantine system for email communications, I'd post Brannon's email address to make it easier to thank him. Instead, call his legislative office and leave a message of thanks: (803) 212-6876.

Brannon writes in the Herald-Journal:

After significant thought on my part and the urging of many, I decided to write this to explain why I made the motion to table and voted to table H-3407 (the South Carolina Educational Opportunity Act).

There are four primary reasons the motion to table was made.

Reason 1: The cost of H-3407 in terms of reduced general fund revenue is impossible to calculate. Under the proposed bill, there are no limits put upon the amount an individual or corporation may contribute to a scholarship organization, no limit to the number of scholarship organizations that can be formed, and the bill allows for "stacking" of tax credits in such a way that multiple taxpayers could claim tax credits on the same student. Under this proposed bill, all taxpayers could have eliminated 95 percent of their state tax liability.

Reason 2: This bill offered choice to a limited group of taxpayers, and none of these groups was the intended benefactor. Under H-3407, a private school could choose to accept new students or scholarship students. There was no mandate that private schools join in this choice plan. Corporations or individuals could choose to make contributions in lieu of paying state taxes, and those families that can currently afford private school tuition could choose to take a tax credit against their state tax liability.

The average annual tuition at a private school in South Carolina is $8,720.36 Under H-3407, the total scholarship available to low-income families (the only families that qualify) during the first year is $2,878.00. Who will pay the difference? For families that do not qualify for a scholarship, a tax credit is available in the amount of up to $2,878.00. A tax credit does not result in a tax refund. A tax credit does not put money in your hand.

In South Carolina, there are 149 private schools. Of those, 119 are church related. If a private school that is affiliated with a church accepts a scholarship student, under this bill, that school may not ask that student for a profession of faith, to worship or to pray. We would be asking private church-related schools to create a separate secular curriculum. Do we really want separate but equal again?

Reason 3: H-3407 may not be constitutional. In Williams v. Illinois, the United States Supreme Court said that "a law nondiscriminatory on its face may be grossly discriminatory in its operation." As stated here, this bill did not offer choice to the low-income or those in failing schools — it offered choice to those who can afford it.

Reason 4: One person's choice should not come at the expense of others. Because this bill would have resulted in a significant reduction in general fund revenue, this so-called choice would have come at the expense of others in the form of less money for other services provided by the state of South Carolina.

I encourage each of you to read H-3407. Please see for yourself the flaws in this bill and why it was bad for South Carolina.

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