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S.C. Tea Party members and supporters of expanded parental choice packed a legislative conference room in downtown Columbia, S.C. on Wednesday.

Their objective? To support universal school choice legislation that would raise academic achievement and provide real market-based accountability within our state’s worst-in-the-nation public education system.

Unfortunately, their show of support wasn’t enough as a “Republican-controlled” education committee relied on Democratic votes to temporarily block the proposal.

(To read our exhaustive recap of this groundbreaking legislation, click here. To learn more about the bureaucratic forces seeking to block the bill, click here. To see for yourself the undisputed failure of our state’s current status quo’s current approach to public education, click here).

Three fiscally liberal RINOs – committee chairman John Courson (RINO-Columbia) and Senators Wes Hayes (RINO-Rock Hill) and Larry Martin (RINO-Pickens) – were the only “Republicans” to vote against the bill, but their opposition was enough to blunt its momentum for the time being.

Wes Hayes betrays us again and supports the status quo,” York County school choice supporter Paula Kinziger said after the vote. “I guess we like our place as last in the nation in education.”

Apparently so …

Democratic Senators Darrell Jackson, Phil Leventis, Joel Lourie, Gerald Malloy, John Matthews and Nikki Setzler joined these RINOs in voting against the bill – providing the taxpayer-funded bureaucratic unions that are opposing this legislation with their 9-6 margin of victory.

We asked Martin – one of the three RINOs who voted against the bill – if he had anything to say to the 109,000 South Carolina children who have been trapped in perpetually failing schools under the current system.

“I regret the appearance of that and the way you phrased that question,” Martin told FITS. “I reject the inference that we don’t care about those children because we do. The General Assembly is under a mandate to provide a free, quality public education – and we attempted to do some things in terms of funding and resources for those I-95 schools.”

Republicans who supported the bill included its sponsor, Sen. Larry Grooms, and Senators Tom Davis, Mike Fair, Shane Massey, Harvey Peeler and Greg Ryberg.

Frankly, we’re having a hard time understanding why anyone who claims to be a “Republican” would oppose this bill. After all the GOP platform – which each of these “Republican” Senators claim to support – unambiguously states its support for this specific legislation.

“We embrace the healthy competition that will result from a comprehensive school choice plan that includes the private sector, and believe such a system should be instituted from kindergarten through 12th grade,” the platform notes. “In addition to improving public school performance, a system of school choice that includes tax credits, scholarship granting organizations and vouchers would offer more compassionate and better opportunities for all children in South Carolina.”

Translation? If these politicians are really Republicans, then they should have voted for this legislation.

Of course anyone with two brain cells should have voted for it, too.

After all, our state has tried the more money route and the government-run accountability route only to fail spectacularly on both counts – relegating generations of South Carolina children to second-class status.

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.

Momentum for parental choice legislation aimed at addressing this chronic underachievement has been building in recent weeks – thanks in no small part to the advocacy of U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint. Also, after backtracking on the issue of parental choice during the 2010 campaign, S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley stepped forward a week ago and reiterated her promise to sign the legislation.

“Parents should be able to decide where they send their kids to school,” Haley said. “So, I have said the second they can get that bill to my desk, I absolutely will sign it.”

Obviously, the bill isn’t dead. A version of the legislation recently cleared a S.C. House committee and is expected to receive a vote in that chamber soon.

UPDATE: S.C. Sen. Luke Rankin (RINO-Myrtle Beach) arrived late to the hearing on Wednesday but registered a “No” vote on the bill. If you would like to tell him and the other three RINOs what you think of their votes on this bill and other free market legislation, click here.