Monday, February 6, 2012

Dog-and-pony show pushes vouchers in Spartanburg

Pleased to share a first-person account of last week's voucher rally in Spartanburg, sponsored by the Koch-funded Freedomworks organization, an astro-turf outfit that pretends to be a grassroots concern.

After several consecutive years of watching their voucher legislation defeated voucher legislation in Columbia, our corporate overlords who wish to privatize schools and every other public institution chose to begin a new offensive in Spartanburg. That city and county is home to six House members who, as the Herald-Journal reminded us last week, voted against the voucher bill last year. This being an election year, convention wisdom suggests those six might be a little more open to the idea if a few dozen rabid voucherites gnaw on their public image a bit.

FreedomWorks, which estimates it will spend between $500,000 and $1 million this year in a statewide school choice campaign, will co-host a Thursday evening rally at Spartanburg’s Cleveland Park with the Spartanburg Tea Party and South Carolinians for Responsible Government.

FreedomWorks and its grass-roots supporters, of which the group claims 20,000 in the Palmetto State, are betting that its financial and organizational muscle will force legislators to do something they’ve failed to do in every session since 2004: Pass a bill implementing the system.

The top priority is turning the votes of six House Republicans from Spartanburg who voted against last year’s bill, which was killed by one vote, or backing challengers who will support the legislation.

“We were asked by our activists and by people on the ground to come in and help drive that grass-roots support so we could put pressure on those guys to actually pass something this time,” said David Spielman, campaigns coordinator for FreedomWorks.

That last bit is laughable -- "We were asked by our activities and by people on the ground to come in..." -- on its face.

Adopting a statewide voucher bill has been on the right wing's bucket list for a decade, and the aging funders of that agenda -- who live far, far from South Carolina's borders -- are getting desperate for a win. They smelled it last year, could taste victory in their gold fillings, but had their meal snatched from them by a single vote. So they -- not any activists and not by any people on the ground -- likely began planning this dog-and-pony show as soon as the legislature finished its business last summer.

Why is this a reasonable speculation?

The six House members, Derham Cole, Steve Parker, Doug Brannon, Rita Allison, Eddie Tallon and Mike Forrester, were dubbed the “Spartanburg Six” by tea party supporters after they voted to table last year’s bill that would have provided tax credits to families to send their kids to private schools.

The six have said their votes centered on a lack of support from constituents and cost concerns.

Ching-ching. It's all about the money, boys. The so-called Spartanburg Six looked at the financial impact statement of voucher legislation and saw the mile-long costs down the road. They voted the will of their constituents rather than the will of Deep Pockets From Off, including the funders of FreedomWorks -- which sounds vaguely fascist, doesn't it? -- and our own South Carolinians for Reprehensible Government.

An estimate by the S.C. Board of Economic Advisers, the state’s official economists, showed the state would save $2 million in the first year of the bill’s implementation because of students transferring out of public schools. But the proposal would cost the state in each subsequent year, leading to an annual cost of more than $133 million starting in 2023-24, when all of the tax credits associated with the legislation would be fully implemented.

Hard to defend putting your children and grandchildren in hock for $133 million in annual deficits. Everybody has a limit.

Voucherites -- and Deep Pockets from Off -- were incensed, but that's natural. You see, the ultra-wealthy and the ultra-righteous in America -- and the very worst among them, the ultra-wealthy-righteous of America -- have what we might call an inflated sense of entitlement. They want what they want, and they're used to getting it, by hook AND by crook, and usually through fear so they don't have to actually pay for it.

Representative democracy is the fly in the ointment for these ultra-wealthy-righteous people. Simple folk such as you and me have simple expectations, and among these is the expectation that we elect people to represent us in the state government. When this does happen, it infuriates the ultra-wealthy-righteous, and they're inclined to send their dragoons into our midst to tell us what we should do and say.

So they got incensed, and they commenced to jabbering at us: Jabberjabberjabberjabberjabberjabber, they said in Spartanburg last Thursday night. (This is truly what they sound like.)

As the Herald-Journal wrote, in part, "Supporters of the bill, including Spartanburg Tea Party organizer Karen Martin, say the potential savings" jabber jabberjabber jabberjabber jabber! and "FreedomWorks is pushing a new version of last year’s" jabber jabberjabber jabber "authored by House Ways and Means Chairman Brian White" jabberjabberjabber "cost the state more than $30 million" jabber jabber (give me your money now for my private school vouchers) jabber jabber.

Now listen to this. Chris Connelly leads the conservative party in South Carolina. He's new in the job, relatively, so he may not know that citizens have been bombarded with pro-voucher propaganda since 2002 when Mark Sanford ran for governor, and that lawmakers have been inundated with calls and letters from their people every year since then on this issue. So when Connelly makes a foolish statement like the one below, we must smile and shake our heads together.

Get ready for it:

FreedomWorks is using its money to pay for grass-roots training, voter education events and promotional materials in the run-up to the General Assembly’s vote on the new tax credits bill.

The group says it has distribution centers statewide armed with “tens of thousands” of door hangers, yard signs, district-targeted palm cards, T-shirts and bumper stickers. Spielman confirmed some of the materials highlight votes of the six Spartanburg House members.

He calls five of the members’s support of deductions instead of tax a credits a “cop out.”

“Tax credits are always a fiscally conservative thing to do,” he said.

Spielman is scheduled to speak Thursday night, along with FreedomWorks chairman and former U.S. House Speaker Dick Armey, Martin and state Republican Party Chairman Chad Connelly. U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint of Greenville is set to address attendees via video.

Connelly said the state party won’t recruit challengers to its incumbents, but the party believes competitive primaries are healthy for the party. He said school choice is a platform issue for the state party.

I think the people that vote against it don’t really understand the issue, and all too often the school boards and the teachers unions are heavily influential,” Connelly said. “The party’s always going to be pushing people to support the platform.”

Did you see it? He said, "I think the people who vote against it don't really understand the issue."

This is 2012. For a decade, these same legislators have been hearing about this issue, year-in and year-out. If after ten years, you say they don't understand it, you're calling them stupid. You're saying they don't comprehend plain English and may not be able to calculate elementary math.

How about this: What if they're not stupid? What if they comprehended plain English all this time, and did calculate the elementary math, and concluded that stealing public revenue to pour into private schools through vouchers is a stupid idea?

Who's stupid then?

But Connelly’s ties to the push for tax credits run deep. He’s a former director of the nonprofit South Carolinians for Responsible Government, one of the sponsors of Thursday’s rally, and has continued to serve as an SCRG officer and a member of the group’s board since leaving the position after 2007. He made more than $90,000 as an SCRG director in 2006-07, according to the group’s tax records.

SCRG is one of the South Carolina groups closely tied to Howard Rich, a New York developer and activist who’s funneled hundreds of thousands of dollars into the state since 2004 to push the legislation.

Well, as I mentioned at the top, I'm pleased to share a first-person account of the dog-and-pony show that rolled into Spartanburg last week.

Blogger Dennis S posted a great note at PoliticsUSA, and I'm happy to share it with you here.

A progressive mingling with Tea Partiers? Guilty! I gritted what teeth I have left and headed for a local TP rally in honor of National School Choice Week, mainly because the featured speaker was going to be the individual who gave the party its national voice, Dick Armey. The event was scheduled for the evening of Groundhog Day, February 2nd.

Groundhog day was a little odd since the dates for National School Choice Week were actually January 22-28. The National School Choice Week website was still up post-event and I noticed the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) icon prominently displayed at the bottom of the page as a supporter. My guess is that ALEC’s support extended to major bucks.

The rally was held in a Chateau-like structure located in a public park. I felt like I should have arrived by ski-lift. Instead I wound my way around the park and backed my pickup into a space about a half-block away from the host building. The lot was already filling up 30 minutes before the official opening.

I had no sooner weaved my way to a stop when a scruffy, somewhat ill-kempt fellow approached my Dakota. He reminded me of those aggressive car salesmen that grab your door handle the minute you stop your engine. I rolled the window down as he greeting me and handed me a single sheet of paper with the heading ‘Preschools Are Using a Marxist’s Theories to Manufacture Collectivists’. I had no idea. The piece was written by one Chuck Roger with a snooty accent aigu over the ‘e’. Seems Chuck is convinced our kids are being ruined by a long-dead psychologist named Lev Vygotsky, 77 years removed from this earth.

The other subject matter on the page displayed a website that listed 24 things that government schools dare not teach. Examples 1, 2 and 3 were staring back at me. The first ‘thing’ the schools DARE NOT TEACH was that all men were endowed with certain unalienable rights (I’ve compressed a bit). The second ‘thing’ the schools DARE NOT TEACH was that to secure these rights governments are instituted among men and finally, schools DARE NOT TEACH the meaning of liberty.

I’d like to give you the address of the website so you can read the entirety of these first 3 of these forbidden fruits and the remaining 21, but I DARE NOT!

I quickly thanked this poor wretch and headed in a fast walk to the Chateau.

When I took one step inside the door I felt an immediate thump on my lapel. A lady had affixed a decal on my sports coat like the one with your name on it at gatherings where most of the attendees are strangers. I never bothered to write my name. Upon returning home, I discovered that for the night I had been a human billboard featuring the words ‘SCHOOL CHOICE is the RIGHT choice. So, for this one night, I was a decal-wearing school choicer.

The decal was far from the only school choice propaganda of the night. Tables lined the entire length of one wall, all stacked high with assorted literature, mostly glossy, colorful and expensive.

I quickly skipped over the dessert table, loaded with every high-fat cookie imaginable and its frosted first cousins. And these people want to repeal health care?

The first table piece I ran into was a cryptic single-page in black, white and orange that had Speak/Act in giant letters. The page referred repeatedly to the website of South Carolinians for Responsible Government. SCRG is most obsessed with Superintendent pay and further down the table, SCRG literature headlined Top Ten Overpaid Non-teaching “Educators” named names and showed pictures. Note to SCRG. If you’re competing with the private sector, you’re going to have to pay a fairly high wage to get good people. The average hospital CEO makes $450,000 as of last year. The top Superintendents listed don’t make half that, some far less.

I'll pause here to comment on the dissemination of rational thinking with this disclaimer: The opinions represented herein, rooted in rational thinking and fact data, are applauded by those who have been starved of such thinking for a long time.

Now, to continue:

The piece also described how far below the national average the district’s SAT scores were and how lousy GPA’s were and criticized shortfalls in graduation rates.

Let’s get something else straight. If a child comes from an impoverished background, teachers can have no more than a 15% impact on that youngster’s future. There are many other factors involved in the success or failure of these young people. That’s why many private schools cherry-pick the best students, giving an artificial picture of their SAT, GPA and graduation numbers. Given the odds, it’s extraordinary what public school teachers still manage to do for those unfortunate socio-economically challenged students.

Still further down, SCRG also offered a ten-page mini-tome breaking down the costs to the state and locals of every school district in South Carolina, plus a boatload of every educational expenditure extant. The distorted explanation of teacher job losses was painful to read. If there are fewer teachers, it’s because they leave of their own accord. Firings? Maybe a few. Ignored is the fact that over the past two years public schools have lost over $750 million in state funding. Lemme see – what page was that on? Thousands of teachers were laid off, with salary freezes in the offing for those who remained.

In August of 2011, The South Carolina Superintendent of Education Mick Zais and his fellow birdbrain, Governor Nikki Haley, refused to go after $144 million in federal money from the federal Education Jobs Fund. It was money for school districts impacted by the economy and forced to lay off teachers. No other state, red or blue, was that ignorant or insensitive to the lives of school employees. Zais said the money would result in unwanted ‘federal intrusion’.

But the piece de resistance of the table top displays was a glossy, 33-page, full-color booklet with pictures of every member of the state General Assembly and their contact information. At least 500 copies had to be printed given the crowd estimates of 350-400.

And the final item, rather nice T-shirts (you can guess the screenprints) weren’t cheap either.

I’ve got a call in to a printer friend of mine. I’ll share his estimates in part two of my school choice visit. You’ll also hear what Armey and his sycophants had to say about your horrible public (government) schools after I sat down with three little kids.

Ooooh, I hate a cliffhanger. But rest assured, I'll bring you Dennis's second part, too.

Stay tuned.

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