Same flaws remain in this year's private school voucher bill

April 2, 2011 

As the General Assembly elects for the seventh year to debate legislation that would further deplete funds available for schools and other public services and place them in the pockets of people who already choose to send their children to private schools, consider the following:

South Carolina's public schools, charged with educating more than 700,000 of this state's future employees and citizens, have never confronted challenges greater than the ones they face today. Budgets are being cut for the fourth straight year, reducing resources by nearly $1 billion. At the same time, student poverty, which makes the job of education significantly more difficult, has grown exponentially over the course of the recession, rising from 64 percent in 2006 to 76 percent today. Six out of every 10 South Carolina schools now serve a student population in which 70 percent or more live in poverty.

This year's proposal, dubbed the South Carolina Educational Opportunity Act, has been modified and renamed many times over the years, but none of the flaws that have made it unsupportable in the past has been resolved.

Its promoters maintain the pretense that the goal is to help poor students in "failing" schools. But that claim is misleading. Private schools are still not required to accept the students they don't want. There are still few to no private schools in the poorest rural areas of our state. There is still no transportation, the equivalent of no choice for the children of parents who can't provide it.

This is not, nor has it ever been, an education bill. It is a tax credit bill to benefit families already wealthy enough to pay thousands of dollars in state taxes (less than 20 percent of families in South Carolina) and comfortable enough to pay tuition up front and wait until tax time for reimbursement.

Public accountability is still a problem. Private schools, not required to follow the same financial transparency and academic accountability measures mandated for public schools, would leave taxpayers with no information about how public money is being spent and no basis to compare their performance with public schools.

There is no better evidence today than seven years ago that vouchers are anything other than an expensive experiment. In fact, according to test scores released March 29 by the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, students who received vouchers to attend private or religious schools in Milwaukee performed worse on statewide reading and math tests than their counterparts in public schools. Other recent education studies of voucher programs in Washington and Cleveland found no significant difference in the academic performance of students in voucher schools compared with public schools.

All of those flaws and more make this year's version of private school choice legislation exactly what its predecessors have been: an attempt to subsidize private education for a privileged few, at the expense of the majority who depend on public schools.

To date, no fiscal impact statement has been developed for this year's bill, but estimates of the cost of tax credit bills in the past have ranged from $84 million to $560 million. In Milwaukee, where vouchers have been in place since 1990, the cost to serve about 19,000 students is $120 million a year. Ohio, serving 10,000 students in voucher programs, spends $44 million a year, and Florida's voucher program for children with disabilities costs $131 million a year.

Claims that tax credit legislation would save the state money have never passed the truth test. But any remaining doubt about the fiscal impact of this bill should have been dispelled by the recent testimony from the president of BB&T of South Carolina, who pledged up to $2 million in contributions for private school scholarships during public hearings before House and Senate subcommittees. BB&T's tax obligations, and the taxes of any individual or organization contributing to the scholarship funds, would be reduced on a dollar-for-dollar basis, draining millions from the state general fund.

Nothing now prevents any individual or organization from contributing money for any child to attend a private school. But at a time when South Carolina cannot begin to meet its existing obligations, funding private education at the expense of all state functions is an irresponsible proposal.

South Carolina is not a wealthy state, even in the best of times. We cannot afford the huge expense of bailing out private schools, or exempting parents who choose to use them from helping to fund the schools that serve us all.

And most importantly, we can't afford more years of debate over a plan with no promise to help the vast majority of our children and no potential to contribute to a more prosperous future for our state.

Paul Krohne is executive director of the South Carolina School Boards Association.

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