Thursday, March 1, 2012

Baker Maultsby returns to covering public education

Baker Maultsby lives a double, maybe even triple, life: by day, a former reporter for the Spartanburg Herald-Journal and communications guy for Wofford College, and small businessman -- and by night, twang-and-rock musician who's performed on "Prairie Home Companion" and had his lyrics quoted in the Wall Street Journal, of all places. And he's a family man, married with children, the whole nine.

With that light schedule, it's understandable that he has a lot of time to fill and wants to fill it with coverage of public education issues. To which I say, welcome, and welcome back.

Maultsby announced yesterday that he's kicking off a website of his own -- SC Schools Report -- "dedicated to promoting solid information and positive perspective about public education in our state. The site is also, in part, an effort to push back against some of the dishonest attacks on teachers and schools in our public schools."

That last part makes it a heavy lift, as the anti-public education crowd in South Carolina has a good 300-year head start. Still, the contributions of a fellow with Maultsby's bona fides, and with a heart in the right place, bodes well for educators and South Carolina's 700,000 public schoolchildren.

So, as of today, you'll find his blog over in the Educating South Carolina blogroll -- branded "Baker Maultsby" so he's high up in the list and easy to find.

In his first couple of posts, Maultsby takes on one of the pressing issues of the day in Columbia, the campaign to push vouchers and tax deductions for private and home school expenses. This is an idea whose time died long ago, but South Carolina isn't known for its ability to let go and move on. Maultsby takes on the matter with intelligence and candor, two vital and rare qualities in State House discourse.

The plan represents a compromise between Rep. Brian White (R-Anderson) and Rep. Eric Bedingfield (R-Greenville).

Bedingfield had proposed a $500 tax credit for parents of students in private school or home school. His plan had the support of South Carolinians for Responsible Government (SCRG), a group that has relentlessly (and, in my opinion, dishonestly) attacked public education in recent years and is widely thought to be backed primarily by wealthy New York libertarian Howard Rich.

But Bedingfield has signed off on a proposal that White had been touting -- to allow only a tax deduction for private school and home school families. The difference is significant: A tax credit is a one-to-one rebate on taxes paid. A tax deduction means that a taxpayer can reduce his or her taxable income by a certain amount -- in this case, $4,000 per child in private school, $2,000 per child in home school.

With a tax deduction, the actual money a taxpayer might receive will depend on a variety of concerns, such as tax brackets, the total amount paid in taxes, and so forth. All this is more complicated than a straight $500 tax credit. But one thing is apparent: Families who are wealthy enough to pay at least $4,000 in state income taxes will be eligible for a private school tax break, while those who are not as wealthy may not receive much help at all.

Meanwhile, families whose children qualify for free or reduced lunch or for Medicaid will be eligible for scholarships, but this is murky, too. How many scholarships will really be available for poor kids? Will those scholarships come anywhere near meeting the cost of tuition at our state's best-regarded private schools? Will scholarship-granting organizations have religious or other requirements that rule out some children?

In all, it appears that wealthy taxpayers will be guaranteed a tax break. Middle-income families may not qualify for scholarships and also may not pay enough in state income taxes for a deduction to help much. And SOME poor families may get help, depending on the pool of scholarship money, eligibility issues, and whether or not the private school of their "choice" will accept their children.

And with that, Maultsby uncovers one of the two ulterior motives at the root of every voucher and tax-credit bill filed since 2003: tax breaks for the wealthy, who already send their heirs to heir-camps (or private or parochial schools, if you prefer, or segregation academies).

Despite debatable data on the issue, private school choice has been a major priority for some Republicans in South Carolina since the early days of former Gov. Mark Sanford's administration. Essentially a libertarian ideologue, Sanford rarely had a positive word about our state's public schools and sought early on to divert public money to private schools. For most of the last decade, out-of-state money has flowed into our state in support of front groups like SCRG and candidates supporting private school choice.

Maultsby won't win any friends at SCRG for reminding readers of their corporate and ideological sponsors, but the truth is refreshing.

I was impressed by the fact that White acknowledges that private school choice will cost the state money. In years past, proponents of sending public money to private schools have claimed that their plans will save public schools vast sums of money. They argue that public schools can cut costs for each student who leaves. This ignores basic concepts of overhead costs. For example, if a public elementary school with 500 students loses 20 students to a nearby private school, the enrollment decline likely won't be sufficient to lay off a teacher or cancel a bus route or cut a guidance counseling position.

To his credit, White rejects the fiction that private school choice won't come with a price tag for taxpayers. Indeed, one of his talking points is that his tax deduction plan won't cost the state as much as a plan promising tax credits -- in fact, he estimates around $15 million vs. somewhere near $50 million (there are about 70,000 kids CURRENTLY in private schools in SC -- $500 per child in that group can do the arithmetic).

I was disappointed, however, when White used a piece of SCRG-style rhetoric: "When it comes to education, one size does fit all," he said.

The "one-size-fits-all" charge levelled against public education by private school choice supporters and (over and over) by South Carolina Superintendent of Education Mick Zais is hogwash. Public school districts offer all sorts of academic options, special education support, and extra-curricular activities for students. Yes, better funded districts can offer more than poorer districts ( for thought....), and it is true that state law mandates that students take rigidly standardized tests. But the notion that our public school districts aren't doing their darndest to provide appropriate opportunities for kids of diverse backgrounds, interests, and abilities is simply false.

This is going to be good, and I appreciate having another voice on this side of the public education debate.

Head on over and read the rest for yourself, and encourage others to check out Maultsby's site, too. He's a small businessman, so I'm sure he'll appreciate the traffic. Leave him a note of thanks, and tell him Educating South Carolina sent you.

No comments:

Post a Comment