Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Senate advances choice within public schools

Now this is a horse of a different color: A Senate subcommittee this morning approved a measure that "expands students' educational options within public schools," according to reporter Seanna Adcox.

Notice: This is not the House voucher bill that offers tax incentives to parents who withdraw their children from public schools, or whose children already attend private and parochial schools, or home schools. Rather, this sounds like a true public school choice proposal.

Under the bill, which was approved on a voice vote Wednesday by a Senate Education subcommittee, school districts by 2014-15 would have to offer students at all grade levels at least one additional choice beyond the school they are zoned to attend. Options could include single-gender, Montessori and language-immersion programs, as well as magnet, charter, arts-intensive, extended-day and year-round schools.

It also allows students to attend any school regardless of attendance lines, even outside of their district, at no cost - a concept known as open enrollment. However, the bill allows officials to turn down a transfer application if a school is at capacity, and to limit the number of yearly transfers from another attendance zone to 3 percent of a school's population.

Supporters include associations of teachers, school boards and administrators - groups that oppose private school choice.

Republican state Superintendent Mick Zais supports the bill but would prefer that legislators lift the cap to allow for full open enrollment, said his spokesman Jay Ragley. The agency estimates that 20,000 students could transfer under the cap.

But senators said the allowed cap provides some local control, because no one's certain how many students would elect to transfer. Democratic Sen. John Matthews, a retired principal, called it a good starting point, noting that space could be an issue. He said the cap could be revised later.

Former Democratic Superintendent Jim Rex pushed for the bill in 2007, as he sought to expand choices within the public system while opposing efforts to use taxes to help parents send their children to private school.

But former Gov. Mark Sanford, a Republican, vetoed the measure because it didn't include the private school piece, and the House upheld the veto by 14 votes.

Isn't that interesting. It's the same measure that already passed the legislature once -- in 2007 -- but Mr. School Choice himself vetoed it because it didn't dismantle public education.

What we may take from this point is that the true motive of so-called "school choice" advocates is, in fact, the destruction of public schools if, after all, they cannot support a school choice bill that throws open the opportunity for parents to move their children wherever they like, at no expense, within the myriad public school options.

This is truly an important development, because it helps to focus our attention on doing what's best for all of South Carolina's 700,000 public schoolchildren, rather than diverting public school funding to suit the private-school preferences of our very own one-percent.

Sen. Wes Hayes, the main sponsor of the re-introduced measure, said advocates of private school choice should support his bill as a complement to their efforts.

"There's not necessarily one type of choice. This adds to the options of parents. Having open enrollment across school district lines is new," said Hayes, R-Rock Hill. "I think they all go hand-in-hand."

Hurray for Senator Hayes, for thinking outside the school choice box as constructed by public-school dismantlers.

Senators removed from the bill the requirement that the education agency create an Office of School Choice.

Rex created the office without the law and spent much of his tenure advocating the expansion of various public school choices statewide, making South Carolina a national leader in public single-gender and Montessori programs. But, as Rex noted years ago, many districts need the legal push.

When Zais took office, he merged five divisions into three, and folded the school choice division into the Office of School Transformation.

That sounds like Zais -- consolidating power, purging public servants and chilling dissent, all under an Orwellian banner of doublespeak. I heartily doubt that Zais's definition of "transformation" coincides with mine.

Officials did not know how many of South Carolina's 85 school districts already offer inter-district choices.

High-choice districts include Richland 2 in suburban Columbia.

Board chairman Chip Jackson said more students apply for his district's popular choice programs than schools will hold. Depending on the school, lotteries or an interview process determines who gets to attend. He noted the district's magnet selection process just ended, and parents are flooding offices with calls.

"It's a good problem to have, but it is a problem," he said.

He said he is concerned that students in adjoining districts wanting to transfer in could worsen the problem, prompting senators to let local school officials, rather than the state board, to determine when a school is at capacity.

The lone senator voting against the bill was Sen. Phil Leventis, D-Sumter. He said he didn't like the idea of lotteries determining who gets into a program, and said the state needs to give districts money to help pay for the additional programs.

"We're not going to be able to talk ourselves to good schools. Unless we're willing to invest, we'll end up with lotteries," he said. "Should our children's futures be determined by whether or not they win a lottery? I say the answer is no."

Even better! Why not amend this bill to include necessary funding to ensure that choice within public schools is a reality for every student in every school district?

And let a thousand flowers bloom!

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