Monday, April 23, 2012

Greenville News supports public school choice

The headline tells the tale: "Open enrollment is a good idea."

That's the verdict of the editors of the Greenville News, and it accompanies an editorial that lays out in flat facts the case for supporting public school choice, the substance of a bill sponsored by Senator Wes Hayes and now before the Senate for consideration.

This is not the private school voucher bill adopted by the House in March; that one drains tax revenues from the General Fund, in turn draining available resources from public schools. The Hayes bills addresses choice among public schools, earning the praise of Greenville's editors.

A bill that would provide for open public school enrollment across district lines and ensure students have other choices such as single-gender schools, Montessori schools and language-immersion programs seems to be a reasonable way to provide students in South Carolina greater access to high-quality public schools.

The bill has been passed by a Senate Education subcommittee, but has a long way to go before it becomes law. A similar bill was passed by the Legislature in 2007 but vetoed by Gov. Mark Sanford because it didn't include a private school choice option.

Public school choice, or open enrollment, is an obvious place to begin creating competition for public schools. Public education is a constitutionally mandated function of the state government and it makes perfect sense for lawmakers seeking to increase competition to do it in a way that clearly is within their constitutional authority. A proposal such as this avoids any of the potential gray areas that surround the idea of using state funds to pay for or subsidize private education.

A bill that would provide a tax deduction for parents who send their children to private schools is being considered in the Legislature, but it does not offer the incentives that would truly increase competition for public schools.

Open enrollment for public schools would let parents opt to have their children attend better performing schools that are outside of their attendance zone as long as there is room in that school.

School districts would be able to turn down students seeking a transfer if a school is at capacity, and the bill would cap the number of students crossing attendance boundaries at 3 percent of total enrollment. These are sensible limits.

The bill also would require that students at all grade levels be offered one additional choice beyond the school they are assigned, according to a report by The Associated Press. Those choices could include single-gender, Montessori, language immersion, magnet, charter, arts-intensive, extended-day and year-round programs, according to AP. That sounds like a good idea, but lawmakers should carefully study the financial impacts of such a requirement.

This law would need to be a zero-sum proposal -- districts should not lose funding by accepting students from outside the district or meeting other requirements in the bill. Decisions on which students are accepted also would need to be made in a completely objective manner. For instance, this is not intended to open the door for schools to recruit talented athletes to bolster an athletic program.

Those cautions aside, this bill could increase competition among public schools. Under-performing schools could see their enrollment decline unless they take steps to improve, and that should be an incentive for schools to constantly assess their own performance.

In addition to giving students a choice to attend a better school, this bill could offer parents a more convenient option. Some parents, for instance, might seek a school that's closer to work than their child's assigned school.

It would be unfortunate to see this bill falter again because it's not linked to a private-school choice option. It makes perfect sense to separate this type of school choice from other bills that would open the doors to using tax money to fund or subsidize private school attendance.

With public school choice there are no questions of equity involving lower-income students who want to transfer, there's no question about appropriate levels of accountability to the state, and there's less concern about financial impact on local public schools. All of those are serious questions that need to be asked and carefully answered before South Carolina adopts any sort of private school choice. (That said, there is room in this state for limited private school choice that is carefully crafted and is aimed at increasing the options for children trapped in low-performing schools.)

Lawmakers would do well to give this bill a serious look and give state students the option to attend schools across attendance and district boundaries. The limitations in this bill appear to be reasonable enough to ensure that open enrollment in South Carolina would be both manageable and beneficial to students and our public schools.

South Carolina needs to take steps to continue improving the quality of education in this state. This would appear to be one such step that could be taken with little controversy and no negative financial impact on the public schools that are so vitally important to the success of everyone in our state.

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