Monday, February 13, 2012

Loftis op-ed on vouchers, tuition tax credits doesn't mention cost

Curtis Loftis has been a pretty good treasurer so far, questioning the expense of giving so much of the state retirement system to strange investments by contract investors, pushing Governor Nikki Haley to honor her campaign commitments on transparency, and generally blocking Haley's attempts to steamroll her policy preferences through the Budget and Control Board.

Last year, I recall that Loftis visited some public schoolchildren to promote financial literacy; I don't recall hearing that Haley has been in a single public school since being elected to office. Haley did hold a secret meeting with Georgia Governor Nathan Deal last week in Augusta, though, far from the prying eyes of the public and the capitol press corps, apparently to resolve the black eye she's suffered over the Jasper port. Remember transparency?

But that's another story.

Not everyone can be right all the time, and Loftis has taken a couple of stumbles lately. He backed Mitt Romney in the recent presidential primary here, and that turned out poorly. Now, he's published an opinion-editorial in the Spartanburg Herald-Journal in support of vouchers and tuition tax credits, which the Board of Economic Advisors -- which is now run by Haley's own hand-picked chief economist, Frank Rainwater -- says will cost tens of millions of dollars to public education and other state institutions and obligations.

[Yes, quibblers, Rainwater was selected by Marcia Adams, who was hand-picked by Haley to serve as the Budget and Control Board's executive director. And as much as Haley loves micromanagement, it's not a stretch to add two plus two.]

It looks like Spartanburg is going to be Ground Zero for the fight over vouchers and tuition tax credits this year. A couple of weeks ago, the astroturf -- that means non-grassroots -- organization "FreedomWorks," funded by billionaire ideologues, rolled into Hub City to put targets on the six not-very-moderate Republicans for behaving rationally and voting against last year's costly voucher and tuition tax credit bill.

2012 is an election year, so the theory goes like this: If sufficient pressure is put on those six, they'll turn and vote for the same old, reheated hash in a new package, and we'll dismantle public schools for good. And if they don't, then FreedomWorks and its minions will recruit more far-right candidates from these Upstate districts to run against the incumbents, and we'll see this cycle played out again next year.

If that happens, watch the money roll in. Remember how Joey Millwood defeated former House Education Committee chairman Bob Walker of Landrum, using this same template. (And though Millwood served -- unremarkably -- only a single term and was turned out by Rep. Doug Brannan, he didn't suffer too much; Haley installed him on her new-and-unimproved SCETV Board of Directors last year, though he's not there anymore.)

Back to Treasurer Loftis, who may be eyeing his own long-term prospects. His Herald-Journal sales pitch for vouchers plainly rings a populist bell -- "vouchers will save taxpayer dollars" -- but it doesn't address the concerns raised by the Board of Economic Advisors.

More than 15,000 low-income students attend private schools in South Carolina.

Notice the immediate emphasis on low-income families. By casting the voucher and tuition tax credit plan as helpful to low-income families, voucher proponents hope to garner sympathy. But low-income families don't send their children to Heathwood Hall and similar private schools -- schools that wouldn't accept them if they applied -- because a voucher or tax credit doesn't cover the cost of tuition there. So the case opens with sleigh-of-hand. Tsk, tsk.

Their parents scrimp and save. They make sacrifices. They’ve put their children’s education at the top of the family’s financial priority list.

Those parents also pay taxes. More than $8.5 million this year in state income taxes alone.

This is true of all parents of schoolchildren in the state, not only of those who choose to enroll their children in private schools. What parent doesn't put their children's education at the top of the priority list?

Much larger than their contribution to the government coffers is the sum they save other taxpayers. If those 15,000 students enrolled in public schools and were funded at the rate of the existing public school students, it would cost state taxpayers more than $72 million.

Here, the smoke thickens. The children of South Carolina's poor working families are a drain to the system, the column reads. Thank goodness these poor working families send their children to private schools, or their children would be costing the rest of us, too. Shouldn't more working families send their children to private schools, and save the state a lot of money?

Taxpayers below the $35,000 income class would not pick up that slack; it would be borne by those with deeper pockets.

Oh, no. Look who has to foot the bill when South Carolina's poor working families send their children to public schools: Citizens with deeper pockets! Wealthy South Carolinians, who could afford to cough up an extra couple of dimes per year, but who would rather renovate the upstairs bathrooms in their second home in Mount Pleasant.

It's just not fair, says the voucher proponent. Should we force our wealthier citizens to continue looking at 15-year-old bathroom decor when they visit the beach, just so that poor people can send their children to public schools? No, we should let poor people send their children to private schools and take their kids off the public school rolls. A penny saved means better bathroom wallpaper.

But low-income parents don’t send their children to private schools in order to lower the tax bills of their wealthier neighbors.

Clearly, they don't. There are 700,000 children enrolled in South Carolina's public schools, and South Carolina appropriates a king's ransom of $1,880 per child to pay for their education. Cheap as it is, that comes to a lot of money that could be spent on bathroom renovations at beach houses.

They don’t do it to siphon resources away from public school districts, either.

God, no. School districts have precious few resources to siphon, thanks to the starvation diet that legislators afford to them.

They do it because they love their children and know that, for one reason or another, their children need something different than what is offered at the local public school.

Message: Poor people love their children, and we should love them just as much, by letting them try to get into private schools and out of those resource-starved, decrepit old public schools, where they have to sit next to all those other children of poor working families. Public schools stink.

See, I'm beginning to think that Treasurer Loftis didn't actually write this column, but allowed his name to be used on it so the Herald-Journal would publish it, probably as a favor to someone else. It doesn't sound like the state treasurer who had such a good time talking to fourth-graders at West End Elementary School in Easley last year.

While the average cost of private school tuition in South Carolina is less than $5,000, it’s an enormous sum in a household with less than $35,000 of taxable income.

Ho, ho. That's rich.

When parents say to themselves, "I'm sick of public schools; let's send little Bartholomew to a private school," they're not picturing Miss Linda's A-Plus Academy where we're proud to announce that now one hundred percent of our teachers have associate's degrees from an online "university" and a genuine "calling" to teach; they're picturing Heathwood Hall. For $5,000, Heathwood Hall lets a child attend a three-day-a-week nursery school, and that means half-days, not whole days.

Want to send your child to the five-day-a-week (remember: half days) nursery school? That's $7,515 per year. Half-day pre-school: $7,850 per year. Kindergarten: $12,565 per year. Grades one through four: $13,300 per year. Grades five through eight: $14,300 per year. Grades nine through twelve: $15,850 per year, and these prices don't include the $235 technology fee, and the maximum $879 lunch fee required of all full-day students.

I reckon Heathwood Hall doesn't serve the peanut butter and cheese sandwiches and Capri-Sun that Miss Linda serves at the her A-Plus Academy, where the tuition is "less than $5,000" for the year.

It is a true sacrifice. It flies in the face of the stereotype of wealthy suburban students enrolled in elite, expensive private academies.

Sure it does.

Then again, it turns out that sending your children to public school in South Carolina is a true sacrifice, too, when lawmakers continue to deprive them of sufficient funds to pay for high-quality public education. Parents have to take whole reams of copy paper to school as part of the supply list, because districts can't buy what they need anymore. It flies in the face of the old notion that children of poor families could get just as good an education in public schools as those wealthy suburban students enrolled in elite, expensive private academies.


In other states, laws have been passed to support these low-income parents.

Yes; it's called adequate public school funding. It's South Carolina, not North Carolina or Georgia, that has an entire region labeled the "Corridor of Shame" because of school funding deprivation by the state. Did you see that movie?

Tax credits for those who can absorb them and tax credit-funded tuition scholarships for those who cannot.

Aha, now we see a subtle shift: The plan has suddenly expanded to include "tax credits for those who can absorb them," which means wealthy -- at least upper-middle-class -- families who itemize, plus "tax credit-funded tuition scholarships for those who cannot," which means vouchers for poor children to take to whatever private school will let them enroll.

Which is a bad, bad joke. Heathwood Hall isn't going to accept a little voucher for Jimmy if it knows Jimmy's mom and dad can't pay the difference between the voucher and the full price of tuition. Which means that while Bartholomew's parents, who already send Bartholomew to Heathwood Hall, get a nice new tax credit, Jimmy's mom and dad get to shop around for a private school within daily driving distance that will take the little state voucher and not ask for more than that. Hey, didn't we hear that Miss Linda was opening an A-Plus Academy in town? And all of her teachers now have associate's degrees from online universities and a real calling to teach?

Not to mention the peanut butter and cheese sandwiches, and the Capri-Sun for lunch! Hooray for vouchers and tuition tax credits! Now we don't have to go to those rundown, deprived old public schools and sit next to the children of the poor(er).

More than 35,000 low-income students in Florida are enrolled in the school of their parents’ choice through such a program this school year. State budget officials there calculate that the tax credits save $1.49 for each dollar in revenues lost.

Yes, I heard about Florida's voucher program, a widely successful model that allows high school students to graduate in eight days for only $399, and with a 3.41 grade point average.

This is absolutely true and has been covered widely by Florida's media: Thanks to Florida's voucher and tuition tax credit program, high school students can graduate, with a real high school diploma, within eight days of their transfer, for the low, low price of $399. No wonder it saves Florida a bunch of money. Read all about it here. Choice!

Test scores in both the public and private schools have shot up, chipping away at long-standing income gaps.

I bet so! If I can get a high school diploma with a 3.41 grade point average after eight days of school work for only $399 and I can pocket the rest of the voucher, I've raised my income and my test scores, AND the state has raised its high school graduation rate, all at the same time. It's a win-win for everyone!

When critics belittle support of school choice (i.e., the Herald-Journal’s Feb. 5 editorial, “State’s obligation is to improve public schools, not make alternatives affordable”), they reveal both an ignorance of how school choice actually works as well as a condescending indifference about those whom it would most benefit.

Now that's patently offensive, which further convinces me that Treasurer Loftis didn't write this column, because Loftis isn't an offensive person.

You take a $2,000 voucher to the admissions office at Heathwood Hall and ask them to enroll your child for the year, because the state says you can do it with this voucher, and because you want Jimmy to get just as good an education as your CEO's son, Bartholomew, and see who reacts with condescending indifference. I wonder if suddenly YOU might reveal an ignorance of how school choice actually works.

Tax credits for school choice save money because the size of the credit is radically smaller than the level of per-student spending in the public schools.

And the vouchers? That's not universally true of vouchers because many states appropriate much more funding to support its public schools than South Carolina, and that greater investment is reflected in the outcomes.

In South Carolina, it won't be difficult to offer a voucher that is greater than the state's base student cost; South Carolina lawmakers struggle mightily to keep it as low as possible, and it's now $1,880. Therefore, a voucher of $1,881 would be greater than South Carolina's per-pupil investment, and Heathwood Hall would chortle at the suggestion that it will cover your child's enrollment at that school for a year.

Of course, Miss Linda might take you at her A-Plus Academy, because $1,881 will buy a lot of peanut butter and cheese sandwiches and Capri-Sun, and she'll make a tidy profit after paying her teachers with associate's degrees from online universities, because they have a real calling to teach and will accept minimum wage. Yes, Miss Linda may make out like a bandit. Maybe she'll make enough profit this year to open another location next year, and another...

Critics gloss over the fact that most of local, state and federal spending on public schools is not tied to the specific student. Much of the public money continues to flow even when students transfer out.

It's not really "glossing over" facts to say that when one child leaves a school of 200 students, 199 children are left, and the light bill, water bill, heating and air bills must be paid out of funding for 199 students rather than 200. It's the same light bill, water bill and heating and air bill, whether there are 200 children in the school or 190, 150 or 100. The difference is that drops in student enrollment in public schools mean the district can't afford as many teachers, and the remaining children must be packed into larger classrooms. That's hardly helpful to the teaching and learning process.

But it sure helps to cut the school budget, which cuts into school quality, which undermines parents' confidence in the school, which leads to parents taking their children to Miss Linda's A-Plus Academy for the peanut butter and cheese sandwiches and Capri-Sun lunches. Which leaves fewer children in the public school, which leads to... And the cycle repeats until the public schools have been closed, and education is fully privatized.

And while Heathwood Hall's parents have benefited from tax credits for Bartholomew's tuition, which helped pay for renovating the beach house bathrooms -- yay! cool blue marble tile! -- Heathwood Hall itself hasn't had to take a single child with a state voucher.

In other words, district budgets are protected and class sizes are reduced.

Har, har. At the end of this process, there is no school district budget, except for the poorest students with no Miss Linda's A-Plus Academy nearby, and students with special needs whose educations are funded with federal dollars and regulated by federal law. Miss Linda's A-Plus Academy isn't equipped to serve students with special needs, and she's not interested in trying to comply with federal regulations in order to get those dollars.

These small credits don’t shift a static tax burden from one taxpayer to another; the credits incentivize a choice that reduces that total burden for all.

One, small credits add up to a large sum of credits, which takes its toll on the state's General Fund. And two, "incentivize a choice" means paying people to do what you want them to do. Teenagers don't want to do chores at home; parents pay them an allowance to "incentivize a choice."

So a voucher and tuition tax credit bill offers to pay parents to do what? To leave public schools.

Why? Because some out-of-state interest groups and their billionaire funders have an ideological opposition to public education.

Personally, I support school choice because it gives parents the means and motivation to get more involved in their children’s education.

Personally, I support the full funding of public schools because it honors an American commitment to its citizens, that all children should have access to quality public education, regardless of where they were born and regardless of who and how wealthy their parents may be.

I know that parental engagement is the only silver bullet in the field of education.

And I know that the only golden bullet is a capable, caring, qualified teacher in front of a manageable number of students, with sufficient classrooms resources and access to experiential learning opportunities.

And the only platinum bullet is a combination of literacy resources in the home, plus a nurturing family structure, and good nutrition, and adequate rest, and stimulating interaction with other children and attentive adults.

And the only diamond bullet is a culture that supports the concept that when we educate one another's children evenly and fairly, we strengthen our community, our state and our nation.

I know engagement is not something that can be appropriated in a state budget bill or regulated into existence by a bureaucrat in Washington.

I know that good parenting skills can't be legislated by a government entity, but that the root problems that impede a family's ability to support their child's education -- unemployment, poverty, crime, poor nutrition, lack of literacy resources in the home, etc. -- can be addressed through federal and state aid problems, and through appropriations for student services through public schools.

It's amazing what can be accomplished for children when lawmakers choose to support it.

The fact that school choice is proven to save money — and has never been tied to a reduction in public school funding levels — is just a nice side benefit of doing the right thing for students.

Oh, Treasurer Loftis.

As you know, the Board of Economic Advisors, in a pair of fiscal impact statements, have said precisely the opposite: That the two voucher and tuition tax credit bills now sitting in the House, don't save any money -- they cost money. The cost of one version will be $30.2 million in the first year alone; the cost of the other version will be $68.8 million in year one, $83.8 million in year two, and $98.8 million in year three.

Convincing -- no, paying -- parents to take their children out of economical public schools and enroll them in private schools is expensive to South Carolina, and ultimately to those students who will, inevitably, be left behind in ever-smaller, ever-more deprived public schools.

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