Thursday, April 5, 2012

Brack, Free Times react to House voucher bill

Two sources I consult regular for clear-eyed reporting and commentary on the goings-on in Columbia are Statehouse Report, published by Andy Brack of Charleston, and the Free Times of Columbia.

Neither has disappointed in covering last week's passage of a voucher bill by the House.

From Statehouse Report comes this headline: "Back-door voucher bill defies logic."

If you ever thought the folks at the Statehouse take voters as “April fools,” just delve into a newly-passed House bill that seeks tax credits for parents who have kids in private school.

The House of Representatives has passed a so-called “school choice” bill that supporters claim gives parents more choice in education. Over the last few years, proponents have received more than $2 million to push the legislation from New York millionaire Howard Rich.

Meanwhile, opponents say the measure is a voucher in disguise -- a harmful way to siphon public money from public schools to weaken them more than they already are.

When proponents talk about “school choice,” they ignore the fact that public schools today offer more choices than ever before. Not only are there a plethora of charter schools all over the state, but there are magnet schools and programs, vocational tracks, Montessori-style instruction, online schools, arts-based schools and more.

Take note of that last fact, readers; you'll see it here again.

To suggest that public schools don’t offer choices to parents is outright wrong. But more importantly, the logic behind this move for more “school choice,” is fundamentally flawed.

Consider how the newly-passed House bill would allow tax deductions for parents’ income in three categories:
Up to $4,000 for parents who send their child to private school;
Up to $2,000 for parents who home-school their child; and
Up to $1,000 for parents who send their kids to a school in a district which is not their own school district of residence.

Now think about that. The measure is elitist on its face. Why? Because you need at least $4,000 in taxable income to take advantage of the tax deduction. But guess what? About half of South Carolinians make so little income -- or have enough tax breaks already -- that they pay absolutely no South Carolina income tax.

I think Rep. James Smith made the same point during the House debate, and he added that because of this fact, the bill under discussion amounted to no more than "gravy" for those wealthy enough to take advantage of it.

Let me run that by you again. Of the 2 million income tax returns filed in 2009, some 889,889 returns (43.7 percent) had absolutely zero tax liability. If you add another 131,592 returns where filers’ tax liabilities were $100 or less, then just over half -- 50.15 percent -- of filers paid $100 or less in S.C. income tax, according to the most recent numbers from the state Department of Revenue.

So do you really think people who don’t earn enough money to pay income taxes in South Carolina are going to benefit from a $4,000 tax deduction or have enough money to send their kids to private school? Heck no. But the legislature wants you to believe it is “looking out” for low-income people and trying to give them real choices.

Hogwash. This Republican-backed measure isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on. It’s nothing more than a way to help rich backers who want public money to help pay for private schools.

Various estimates suggest that between $7 million and $15 million has been donated to legislators and candidates, or used to mount propaganda campaigns, in support of the scheme.

The fiscal impact statement of the bill is estimated to cost the state $37 million in the first year, and more in subsequent years. I'd say that a lot of payback.

Jon Butzon of the Charleston Education Network said the House bill will harm public education.

“It’s only going to benefit a few and anybody who gets anything can already attend a private school,” he said. “The bigger issue is the General Assembly has a constitutional responsibility to every child of the state of South Carolina and it’s not meeting its responsibility.”

That responsibility, he said, is to fully-fund public education, as required by the state Education Finance Act. For the coming year, the House passed a $6.5 billion budget that underfunded public education by $700 million, or $1,002 per student.

So our lawmakers under-fund the base student cost by $1,002 per student, then moan and groan about the poor results coming out of public schools, and use them as justification for a voucher scheme that isn't paid for in our budget. This isn't public policy; it's a bad Three Stooges reel.

So while legislators plan to abrogate their responsibility to pay for public education as required by the law -- particularly laughable in a year when the state has a $900 million surplus -- they are also trying to sell the education moonshine of the need for tax deductions for people with kids in private school.

“They’ll sit up there and point the finger, but the Constitution says they’re responsible for every child,” Butzon noted. “This bill lets them off the hook to sell the smoke and mirrors that voters deserve a choice. Where is THAT in the Constitution?”

This House bill is a fraud that takes us all as April fools. Let’s hope the state Senate doesn’t fall for this illogical, vituperative political malarkey.

Amen. The State's "Buzz" author seems to think the Senate will bury it quickly, but I'll get to that in a minute.

Award-winning writer Corey Hutchens of the Free Times offered his own circumspection of the matter in this week's edition:

The Palmetto State has been a national flashpoint in the school choice movement since former Gov. Mark Sanford introduced the issue in 2004. In doing so, he attracted out-of-state pro-voucher forces whose outside money and hardball political tactics have become legend.

In 2009, Sanford’s lieutenants circulated a “hit list” of GOP incumbents who opposed school choice. Groups aligned with the issue recruited and funded primary challengers.

Gov. Nikki Haley, long a darling of the private school choice movement, said early in her administration that she won’t make the divisive issue a priority — but will sign a school choice bill if it makes its way to her desk.

In 2010, a Winthrop University poll showed likely voters in the state were evenly split on education tax credit proposals, which was a significant change from previously reported negative public perception.

Funny thing about polls is how the language of the questions often leads to pre-determined answers. Ask someone, "Would you support taking public dollars away from public schools?" and, if they support their local public schools, they may answer "No."

Now ask the same person, "Given that we spent roughly the gross national product of a Latin American nation on public education but haven't yet seen a graduate win a Nobel Prize, would you support giving state money to private schools where class sizes are small, school lunches are nutritious and children seem happy?" You might get a teary "Yes."

So I'm not that excited about polls unless I can read the questions and compare apples to apples.

Debbie Elmore, spokeswoman for the South Carolina School Board Administrators Association, who has fought such legislation for years, agrees that more lawmakers might have voted for it because it’s a “tamer” bill, but cites other reasons, too.

She blames outside school choice groups using what she calls bullying and harassment tactics to antagonize Republican lawmakers who oppose school choice, particularly in the Upstate.

During Sanford’s administration, the school choice debate made Howard Rich a household name. The wealthy New York City-based antigovernment activist dumped millions into South Carolina in support of school choice by funding SCRG and pro-voucher candidates.

One of former Democratic S.C. Superintendent of Education Jim Rex’s legacies was making the word “voucher” toxic when it came to school choice legislation. The language has since changed to “tax credits.”

This year, the national tea party-aligned FreedomWorks has zeroed in on certain lawmakers with phone calls and direct mail in their districts.

The efforts aren’t new, but are they finally paying off?

While Elmore won’t go that far, she says they’ve certainly taken their toll.

“I think that they’ve worn down the weary,” she says.

Wearing down the weary: Another tactic that doesn't lead to great public policy.

As I noted, The State seems to believe that the Senate will kill the voucher bill quick. True, the filing deadline for Senate races passed on March 30, so the voucherites don't have that to hold over Senators' heads. But a lot of Senators already have opposition, so we'll see.

Writes The State:

As any civics teacher can tell you, the role of a lower house – in South Carolina’s case, the state House – is to hotly reflect the desire of the public.


Elected every two years, House members cannot afford to be philosophical.

Even so last week’s S.C. House vote to start (it will never end) diverting state tax revenues – via tax deductions and credits – to parents who home school or send their children to private school was surprising.

No. 1: The voucher movement has been noisily renouncing any communal societal obligations – humbug!!! it’s failed!!! – for a decade.

No. 2: New York real estate millionaire Howard Rich and his friends have put nearly $2 million into S.C. political races over that decade to elect enough legislators – overwhelmingly Republicans – to turn the state into a K-12 lab experiment.

What’s surprising?

What took so long?

Lower houses, like the S.C. House, are the legislative equivalent of the grand jury that would indict a ham sandwich if a prosecutor said he – or she – wanted it. You, Joe or Mary Donor, or Bill or Sarah Voter want it? It’s part of the GOP agenda! You get it!

Of course, your civics teacher also would remind you that that is the proper role of a lower house, and the role of an upper house – in this case the famously deliberative S.C. Senate – is to sort the good ideas that the hotheads in the lower house have from the bad ones.

And it will.

(Heck, the S.C. Senate even kills good ideas that come from the House.)

Bottom line? The latest school choice bill will go nowhere this year. It felt good (in the House). But the Senate will kill this puppy so smoothly it won’t even yelp.

And, this being the end of a two-year session, after the bill dies in the Senate, it can all start again next year.

The Buzz sure hopes so.

South Carolina could use the added economic impact of Mr. Rich financing another 10 years of Palmetto State political races and blogs.

Must we suffer that injustice to reap economic growth?

I appreciate that The State added the vote breakdown, so we can see who did what on the fateful day.

For those of you keeping score, here’s how the House vote broke down:

For – 65 members, all Republicans – Rita Allison, R-Spartanburg; Todd Atwater, R-Lexington; Nathan Ballentine, R-Richland; Bruce Bannister, R-Greenville; Liston Barfield, R-Horry; Eric Bedingfield, R-Greenville; Kenny Bingham, R-Lexington; Don Bowen, R-Anderson; Bill Chumley, R-Spartanburg; Alan Clemmons, R-Horry; J. Berham Cole, R-Spartanburg; Tom Corbin, R-Greenville; Kris Crawford, R-Florence; Bill Crosby, R-Charleston; Joseph Daning, R-Berkeley; Greg Delleney, R-Chester; Tracy Edge, R-Horry; Shannon Erickson, R-Beaufort; Mike Forrester, R-Spartanburg; Mike Gambrell, R-Anderson; Dan Hamilton, R-Greenville; Nelson Hardwick, R-Horry; Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston; Jim Harrison, R-Richland; George Hearn, R-Horry; Phyllis Henderson, R-Greenville; William Herbkersman, R-Beaufort; Bill Hixon, R-Aiken; Chip Huggins, R-Lexington; Chip Limehouse, R-Charleston; Deborah Long, R-Lancaster; Phillip Lowe, R-Florence; Jay Lucas, R-Darlington; Peter McCoy, R-Charleston; Jim Merrill, R-Berkeley; D.C. Moss, R-Cherokee; Steve Moss, R-Cherokee; Chris Murphy, R-Dorchester; Wendy Nanney, R-Greenville; Ralph Norman, R-York; Phillip Owens, R-Pickens; Steve Parker, R-Spartanburg; Andy Patrick, R-Beaufort; Michael Pitts, R-Laurens; Tommy Pope, R-York; Joshua Putnam, R-Anderson; Rick Quinn, R-Lexington; Kevin Ryan, R-Georgetown; Gary Simrill, R-York; B.R. Skelton, R-Pickens; G. Murrell Smith, R-Sumter; G.R. Smith, R-Greenville; J. Roland Smith, R-Aiken; Mike Sottile, R-Charleston; Edward Southard, R-Berkeley; Kit Spires, R-Lexington; Tommy Stringer, R-Greenville; Eddie Tallon, R-Spartanburg; Bill Taylor, R-Aiken; Anne Thayer, R-Anderson; David Tribble, R-Laurens; Brian White, R-Anderson; William Whitmire, R-Oconee; Mark Willis, R-Greenville; Tom Young, R-Aiken

Against – 49 members, including five Republicans – Paul Agnew, D-Abbeville; Terry Alexander, D-Florence; Karl Allen, D-Greenville; Carl Anderson, D-Georgetown; Michael Anthony, D-Union; Jimmy Bales, D-Richland; James Battle, D-Marion; William Bowers, D-Hampton; Joan Brady, R-Richland; Lester Branham, D-Florence; Doug Brannon, R-Spartanburg; Curtis Brantley, D-Jasper; G.A. Brown, D-Lee; H. Boyd Brown, D-Fairfield; R.L. Brown, D-Charleston; Mia Butler Garrick, D-Richland; Bill Clyburn, D-Aiken; Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg; Laura Funderburk, D-Kershaw; Wendell Gilliard, D-Charleston; Jerry Govan, D-Orangeburg; Chris Hart, D-Richland; Jackie Hayes, D-Dillon; David Hiott, R-Pickens; Kenneth Hodges, D-Colleton; Jenny Horne, R-Dorchester; Lonnie Hosey, D-Barnwell; Leon Howard, D-Richland; Joseph Jefferson, D-Berkeley; Kevin Johnson, D-Clarendon; Patsy Knight, D-Dorchester; David Mack, D-Charleston; Joe McEachern, D-Richland; Walt McLeod, D-Newberry; Elizabeth Munnerlyn, D-Marlboro; Jimmy Neal, D-Lancaster; Joe Neal, D-Richland; Denny Neilson, D-Darlington; Harry Ott, D-Calhoun; Julia Parks, D-Greenwood; Lewis Pinson, R-Greenwood; Todd Rutherford, D-Richland; Ronnie Sabb, D-Williamsburg; Bakari Sellers, D-Bamberg; James E. Smith, D-Richland; Leon Stavrinakis, D-Charleston; David Weeks, D-Sumter; Seth Whipper, D-Charleston; Robert Williams, D-Darlington

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