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Palmetto politicians like to say there are no “silver bullets” when it comes to fixing what ails our state (on multiple fronts) … but as South Carolina continues to back itself into a corner economically and educationally, we’d better find some of this elusive ammo quickly.

With respect to our worst-in-the-nation public education system, one thing is for certain … dumping hundreds of millions of additional dollars into the failed status quo has clearly not been a silver bullet. Nor has dumping ten of millions of dollars each year into so-called “accountability” measures which have only served as a costly, taxpayer-funded cover up for government’s ongoing generational failure.

Also failing to turn things around? Billions of dollars in new facilities (paid for by local tax hikes), a massive expansion of administrative positions, the hiring of costly education “consultants” and teacher bonuses that have nothing to do with classroom achievement.

Oh, and then there’s the latest government ploy … “public school choice” … which has failed for the simple reason that it doesn’t actually provide choices.

Bottom line? None of these government-driven solutions have made a dent in our state’s historic academic under-achievement  … in fact, our state continues moving in the wrong direction despite record funding increases and a host of other “education reforms.”

According to the latest data, our state’s overall graduation rate remains among the worst in the nation – improving by a meager 1.5 percent over the last decade (one of the worst percentage improvements in the entire country). That’s consistent with our rural graduation rate (which currently ranks dead last in the country) as well as our declining SAT and stagnating ACT scores.

And let’s not forget that as South Carolina continues to fall further behind the rest of America – the rest of America continues to fall further behind the rest of the world.

In a global competition for jobs and investment, that’s not good …

Making matters worse is the fact that Gov. Nikki Haley – a former sponsor of universal parental choice legislation during her days in the S.C. House of Representatives – has backtracked on her commitment to this key reform. So much for “transforming South Carolina in ways that have long been imagined,” right?

Fortunately, stepping into this void of leadership and glut of failed government solutions is a growing contingent of state lawmakers who are fed up with the status quo. On Thursday, these lawmakers rolled out their proposed alternative to decades of chronic, costly under-achievement – a universal parental choice plan that would dramatically expand academic freedom in South Carolina and finally force our state’s public schools to improve their abysmal performance.

Oh … and save money, too.

“Today is the day we begin the process of bringing real school choice to South Carolina,” said S.C. Sen. Larry Grooms (R-Berkeley), one of a handful of real Republicans in the S.C. Senate and a lead sponsor of this year’s universal choice legislation.

Joining Grooms in sponsoring the “Educational Opportunity Act” were several of the Senate’s staunchest free market advocates – Tom Davis, Lee Bright, Kevin Bryant, Phil Shoopman and Danny Verdin. Other co-sponsors include Senate President Glenn McConnell, Chip Campsen, Mike Fair, Mike Rose and David Thomas.

Also co-sponsoring the new legislation is S.C. Sen. Robert Ford (D-Charleston), who courageously withstood the slings and arrows of the establishment two years ago when he stepped forward to lead this “new civil rights struggle.”

Props to all of them … and we hope to see additional sponsors as this legislation moves forward. Also, a companion bill will be introduced in the S.C. House, with Rep. Bill Herbkersman (R-Beaufort) serving as the primary sponsor.

Like previous versions of parental choice, this new bill would permit all South Carolina families to claim a state income tax credit for out-of-pocket tuition expenses. Homeschooling families would be permitted to claim a credit for instructional expenses, and non-profit organizations would provide low-income children with tuition scholarships. To fund those scholarships, both individuals and corporations would be permitted to claim a state tax credit for donations made to Student Scholarship Organizations (SSO’s) – IRS-recognized non-profits that would be required to spend 95 percent of their contributions on scholarships for low-income students.

Expanded parental choice has proven successful everywhere it has been implemented – not only in terms of providing a way out for children trapped in failing schools, but forcing public schools to improve their performance (i.e. market-based accountability).

And given that the value of the new tax credits and academic scholarships are much lower than the state’s $12,000+ per pupil cost, the legislation would dramatically raise per pupil spending in South Carolina (while reducing class sizes).

“It means more money, without raising taxes, and more options for students who need them,” Sen. McConnell said.

In fact, in touting the new legislation lawmakers said that state auditors in Florida were reporting $1.49 in education savings for every dollar of school choice tax credits in that state. Expect to see this figure cited frequently as S.C. lawmakers grapple with an estimated $1 billion budget shortfall.

More importantly, public school students in Florida say significant increases in reading and math scores, as well as a rise in the state’s on-time graduation rate.

That’s not surprising. Consider the latest data from Milwaukee, which is home to the nation’s longest-running parental choice program. According to a new report from the University of Minnesota, participants in the Milwaukee school choice program boast graduation rates that are 18 percent higher than those of students in Milwaukee’s public schools. Also the program, which now features more than 20,000 participants, “costs” taxpayers $6,442 per student – less than half of the $15,034 per student spent at Milwaukee’s public schools

Sound familiar?

Unlike black leaders in South Carolina (most of whom are content to continue shilling for the status quo), black leaders in Milwaukee got together twenty years ago and said “enough is enough.” Led by the daughter of a Mississippi sharecropper, they told the government “you’re failing these children – give us a chance.”

They got their chance – and the results are undeniable.

One of the standard arguments made by school choice opponents (who don’t dispute Milwaukee’s success) is that such a plan could not possibly work in predominantly rural South Carolina.

That’s not true, though.  There are hundreds of private and parochial schools already operating in South Carolina – including many located in rural areas of the state. Schools like Cornerstone Christian School in Paxville, S.C., for example, where the tuition is $2,200 a year. That’s more than $10,000 less per child than what taxpayers shell out for public school students.

(You can read more about Cornerstone in this story, which was published last month in the Sumter Item).

Imagine how many of these schools there would be if our state actually facilitated the creation of a market for their services?

Obviously we don’t believe that choice is the “only” answer.

As Gov. Haley has correctly noted, our state must radically restructure its current funding formula to make sure that education dollars follow the child, not the bureaucrats.  Pumping more money into a system that spends half of every dollar on non-classroom expenses makes no sense – and eliminating the administrative excess while “backpacking” money to each individual child is the best (and fairest) way that we’ve seen to address a host of inequities in our current system.

And while we consolidate funding, we must also open it up for inspection – requiring every educational expense to be placed in an online checkbook so that taxpayers can break down each dime of the record $9.5 billion they’re spending.

We must also scrap our state’s failed assessment and accountability “standards” and replace them with diagnostic tests that give teachers the ability to see what their students are (and are not) learning.  These tests must also allow for apples-to-apples comparisons with other states, something we currently don’t have.

Additionally, we must implement merit-based raises for teachers as opposed to raises based on national certification – something that S.C. Rep. Bakari Sellers is beginning to move us in the direction of doing.

On a structural level, we must also get our government singing off the same sheet of music – namely by supporting the ability of our governors to appoint state superintendents as members of their cabinet. Our state must also champion consolidation at all levels of the public school system – including school district consolidation.

Of all these reforms, though, none would have anywhere near the impact of universal choice.

If our leaders summon the courage to pass it (and Gov. Haley makes good on her promise to sign it), it could be the “silver bullet” that saves our students … and our taxpayers … from yet another decade of increasingly costly failure.

S.C. Educational Opportunity Act

Larry Grooms Video

School choice FAQ

UPDATE: We’ve added this year’s school choice bill to a list of proposed “pro-South Carolina” reforms on our 2011-12 S.C. Legislative Scorecard. If you’ve got a vote that you think we should include on the scorecard, feel free to email it to us (or submit it anonymously on our contact page).