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South Carolina’s eighty-five public school districts held onto a record $900 million in reserve funds in 2011 – an increase of $150 million from the previous year.

This growing pile of unspent, un-obligated reserve money comes as lawmakers must decide – once again – whether to continue pouring record amounts of tax dollars into our state’s worst-in-the-nation public education system or begin providing parents with real choices.

Last year they chose poorly … and the state’s corrupt education establishment laughed all the way to the bank.

This year the beat goes on, as taxpayers are shelling out a record $11,754 per child on public “education” – a figure that doesn’t include income from local bond revenue, investments, and transfers between funds and government agencies. This mountain of new money comes on top of back-to-back years of record education funding (click here and here for those totals). Not only that, school districts are ripping off even more money from local businesses thanks to an ill-advised 2006 “tax swap,” with businesses being forced to pick up the tab.

What are we getting for that investment? That’s easy … diminishing returns.

Two months ago, it was revealed that 76 percent of South Carolina public schools (831 out of 1,037) failed to make adequate yearly progress during the 2010-11 academic year. Nationally, 48 percent of public schools failed to reach this threshold.

Meanwhile according to the latest “Diplomas Count” report – released last June by Education Week – only 58.6 percent of South Carolina high school students graduate on time. That’s the second-lowest graduation rate in the entire nation (trailing only New Mexico) and is well below the national average of 71.7 percent.

Also, according to the College Board – which administers the SAT – public school students in the Palmetto state scored a composite 1,427 (out of 2,400) on last year’s test – a 12-point decline from the previous year’s results. Nationwide, public school scores dropped by 10 points – meaning that the Palmetto state is once again falling further behind the rest of America (which itself is falling further behind the rest of the world).

Finally, according to the results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) – a.k.a. “The Nation’s Report Card” – South Carolina student performance on math and reading exams was statistically no different last year than it was in 2009. However, fourth graders in the Palmetto State saw their reading scores decline. As a result, a whopping 39 percent of fourth-graders in South Carolina now score below basic proficiency in reading.

These outcomes are unacceptable under any circumstances – but they are downright inexcusable in light of the ever-escalating sums of money that taxpayers are compelled to continue investing in a system that is resistant to any form of progress or accountability.

As is the case every year, though, educrats bemoan “budget cuts” and try to frame the debate over parental choice as a “distraction” that keeps lawmakers from focusing on “improving public education.”

Sheesh …

Here’s a news flash – lawmakers shouldn’t be focused on “improving public education,” they should be focused on improving individual academic achievement.

After all, if our state is really going to be “for the children” then our objective should be to raise student outcomes – not subsidize union dues and taxpayer-funded vacations for educrats every year.

Anyway, as they do every year those educrats and their apologists will argue that maintaining healthy reserve balances is the “fiscally conservative” thing to do. We agree – assuming of course that you’re talking about a small business or household budget. Public schools receive hundreds of millions of dollars in new money each year, though. Not only can they count on these revenue streams, but they can count on them increasing in perpetuity.

One thing is perfectly clear, though … the argument that government “can’t afford” to provide more choices to parents just ran into a $900 million buzzsaw.

To view the fund balances for each individual district, click on the spreadsheet below …

2011 S.C. Public School Fund Balances (.xls)