School Choice: An Accountability Update
It’s January and the special needs scholarship program is up and running … er, kind of.
Always a little late to the common sense party, South Carolina became the twenty-fourth state in America to adopt some form of parental choice for students in grades K-12 this last summer. Specifically, heavy lifting by a handful of farsighted Senators saw the inclusion of a tax credit funded scholarship program in the 2013-14 budget that serves students with educational disabilities.
On January the state budget year, the school year, and the tax year have finally aligned. This means students with verified special educational needs can receive scholarships to attend one of dozens of private schools that cater specifically to these unique students or which have a dedicated in-house track for these costly to educate children.
Private individuals and corporations fund these special needs scholarships by making tax credit eligible donations to “Scholarship Funding Organizations,” or “SFOs.”
In the months leading up to the start of the tax year, dozens of schools have applied for – and received – authorization to participate. We’ve also seen the emergence of a nonprofit organization that posts profiles of schools and scholarship providers online, and offers parents and the public with detailed information on the program.
That group, “Access Opportunity South Carolina,” has also created a “best practices pledge” and “process disclosure” that encourages aspiring scholarship providers to commit to higher levels of accountability and transparency than the proviso itself even requires.
So what’s missing? The Scholarship Funding Organizations themselves. While four aspiring SFOs are now listed on Access Opportunity’s website (IndependentED.org), none are yet listed as having been authorized by the Education Oversight Committee (EOC) – which is the state agency charged with screening and regulating the charities.
In other words, donors can’t get credits for contributions and, resultantly, money is not yet on hand for the issuance of scholarships. The EOC’s own website for the program states simply that the agency is “initiating a review of documents provided by the non-profit funding scholarship organizations” and that the website will be “updated to reflect approved scholarship funding organizations by December 31, 2013.”
Which of course was a week ago …
Naturally, our first assumption would be either incompetence and/ or resistance from the state’s education establishment: Either bumbling, lazy, and inept bureaucrats simply failed to do their job in approving the SFOs, or, statist, ideologically driven functionaries used their role as SFO authorizers to prevent the program from operating (knowing that it’s successful implementation would allow middle and low-income students with disabilities to access highly specialized services outside the one-size-fits all government schools).
In fact that was our presumption this week we we began making calls about the status of the SFOs.
It turns out that presumption is wrong, though. The EOC – and specifically it’s executive director, Melanie Barton – haven’t been dragging their feet. They’re actually doing the job taxpayers are paying them to do. In fact we’ve heard from multiple sources that one of the aspiring SFOs includes an individual with an especially damning backstory, which is reportedly why the EOC has yet to authorize any SFO (ostensibly so it can fully probe the allegations against this “bad apple”).
That’s the very definition of accountability, people.
Unlike the government-run system (where bad apples routinely get rewarded), the system of checks and oversight built into this school choice program are rigorous – and working precisely as they were intended to work.
So … which would-be SFO is the alleged bad apple? It’s too early for us to say at this point. Like the EOC, FITS has received a ton of information which we are currently in the process of vetting. In the meantime, it’s a safe assumption that a group not approved by the EOC – and not committed to the “best practices” laid out by Access Opportunity South Carolina – is one to avoid.
To learn more about South Carolina’s special needs school choice program, click on the link below … and stay tuned to FITS for updates on which groups receive authorization to offer these important scholarships in the Palmetto State.