Saturday, March 24, 2012

History repeats: The State on vouchers, 2007

It's possible that our leaders will pull out their warmed-over voucher bill this week for debate in the House.

Haven't we been here before?

We have. The State newspaper published the following editorial on March 27, 2007, almost five years ago to the day:

LET’S SAY THE city police have abandoned some neighborhoods. When residents complain, instead of sending the police back in, the city council tells them to hire private security guards and send the city the bill. The council also tells residents in the gated communities who already pay for extra private security details they can stop paying property taxes.

When critics point out that companies won’t go near the most dangerous neighborhoods, city leaders assure them that more will open up shop now that government money is available to pay them. If all this means there’s less money for the city police, well, so be it.

Ridiculous, right? Every member of the city council would be kicked out on the street in the next election — if they weren’t tarred and feathered first.

Yet this is essentially what the House will be asked to do this week when it comes to public education.

That’s right. It’s time for the voucher showdown in the House. That might seem odd, since there have been no committee votes, no subcommittee hearings on the bill to subsidize private schools by providing vouchers to poor kids who attend “failing schools” and largely illusory tax credits to everyone else.

Because the legislation will be offered as an amendment to the 4-year-old kindergarten bill or the public school choice bill, we can’t tell you the exact details of the voucher/tax credit plan that will be proposed. In fact, most House members probably won’t find out until just minutes before they have to take a vote.

Details are important, because some ways of subsidizing private schools are more wasteful and more antithetical to public accountability for tax dollars than others. But every proposal that has been made public is bad policy that would do nothing to improve the public schools that most students will always attend, and could do them great harm, by further eroding public support and involvement. The versions that have been made public so far wouldn’t even help the middle-class families who are struggling to pay for private school or to home-school their children, because fewer than a third of South Carolinians pay enough income taxes to benefit from tax credits.

Supporters say they’re trying to “rescue” poor kids from failing public schools, but that’s at best an illusion. All they’re doing is throwing tax money at private schools, no questions asked. Here’s what that means: The best private schools won’t accept students who truly need to “escape,” because they’re too far behind to meet those schools’ standards. The taxpayers will subsidize some schools that manage to discriminate on the basis of race or social class or who knows what without acknowledging it. Some fly-by-night schools will pop up to take students the good schools won’t accept, but with limited state requirements, they’ll probably do a worse job than the public schools those kids “escaped.”

Even if every private school in the state did an outstanding job, most students would continue to attend the public schools. But with “choice” available to everyone, the Legislature would feel no obligation to do the hard work of improving our public schools. And it does require work, not just a blind faith in the power of competition, and it requires tools that the Legislature has refused to give to principals and teachers.

Our state constitution requires us to make sure every child has the opportunity to get a good education. The way to do that — and in so doing to make South Carolina a more prosperous and attractive state — is to improve our public schools, not to give up on them.

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