The South Carolina Senate is set to vote on a budget amendment next week regarding the contentious issue of school choice. The amendment, if passed, will allow parents to take state tax deductions of up to $4,000 a year for tuition paid to send their children to private schools, $2,000 a year if they homeschool their children, and $1,000 a year if their children attend a public school outside of the area they are zoned for.
Contributions to private school scholarship funds would also qualify for tax credits.
This particular amendment is not a voucher system that gives parents taxpayer money to send their children to private schools, but it does have the same effect as a voucher in that parents benefit financially when they avail themselves of these options. Given S.C.’s 7 percent across the board income tax rate, these deductions would yield a relatively small decrease in taxes paid per parent. Additionally, it would only affect those who make enough money to pay state income tax, so opponents argue that this amendment does nothing for the poor.
The proposed amendment is estimated to reduce state revenues by approximately $39 million a year if it passes. Opponents of the amendment argue that this is money that should go toward funding underfunded public schools, not to subsidizing private school choice with tax deductions and credits.
In a recent article in The (Columbia, S.C.) State newspaper, Senate Minority Leader Nikki Setzler, D-Lexington, said that in the budget year beginning July 1 the state plans to spend $2,101 per student – or $670 less than state law calls for.
“We have a constitutional mandate to provide a free public education for every student in this state, and we’re not even meeting what is required now,” he says.
The relevant sections of our constitution state as follows:
- SECTION 3. System of free public schools and other public institutions of learning.
The General Assembly shall provide for the maintenance and support of a system of free public schools open to all children in the State and shall establish, organize and support such other public institutions of learning, as may be desirable. (1972 (57) 3193; 1973 (58) 44.)
- SECTION 4. Direct aid to religious or other private educational institutions prohibited.
No money shall be paid from public funds nor shall the credit of the State or any of its political subdivisions be used for the direct benefit of any religious or other private educational institution. (1972 (57) 3193; 1973 (58) 44.)
Democrats in the legislature are generally opposed to various school choice bills and amendments. Republicans, who hold a majority in both legislative houses in S.C., are split in their support of the proposals regarding school choice. Those Republicans who are opposed to choice measures can – and have in the past – join with Democrats to block the passage of those measures.
It is time for those opposed to the various school choice proposals to take a step back and review their motivations. Due to an unyielding support of public education, they may be trying to preserve a broken system at all costs and at the expense of the immediate needs of South Carolina’s children. That needs to change.
South Carolina’s public school system, in its current form, is deeply flawed. Stagnant or declining SAT scores, a graduation rate of 73.6 percent for 2011 (an improvement over the previous two years, but still below the graduation rate of the majority of the nation’s public schools), and a failure of the majority of SC’s public school students to make adequate yearly progress compared to other public school students across the nation (based on data from the National Assessment of Educational Programs) are all evidence of that.
There are certainly some examples of thriving public schools in this state, but we must look at the overall numbers, and those numbers are just not acceptable if our goal is to educate the majority of our children adequately in preparation for either higher education or the workforce.
Federal mandates and grants intended to increase accountability have increased reliance on standardized test scores as a way to evaluate teachers. They have also provoked debates about how to protect vulnerable populations like the poor and disabled, and have sparked fierce battles over local versus federal control of education. Legislators are trying to craft laws that will help the problem, but there are competing ideas about what those laws should do. Administrators are unsure about how to implement programs, while good teachers are caught in the middle.
Parents are frustrated with what they see as a lack of choices for their children’s education. And most importantly – children are losing out.
So back to those tax deductions and the opposition to them. Yes, giving tax deductions to parents who choose alternatives to public school (or who send their children to out-of-zone public schools) will reduce overall tax revenue to the state. But the argument that those particular funds should go to failing public schools is one of throwing good money after bad. Opponents of school choice measures insist that choice helps wealthy parents send their kids to private schools while doing nothing for poor children. But low-income parents of children in failing schools want options. They can’t afford to move to a better district. But, with some help, they might be able to afford to send their children to an independent or religious school in their area that would give their children a good education and a fighting chance and breaking the cycle of poverty.
Let’s craft legislation that will actually give them that help.
Anyone who has watched “Waiting for Superman” – Davis Guggenheim’s award-winning 2010 documentary about five families’ quest to find high-quality public education for their children in a system that inhibits, rather than encourages, academic growth – knows that the public education system needs fixing. This is especially true in South Carolina. They must also know that parents of current school children don’t have the time to wait while legislators hammer out and schools try to implement long-term solutions that may – or may not – work.
Parents know which schools in their communities are working and which aren’t, and they know which schools will give their kids the best shot at long-term success. Why shouldn’t we help make it possible for them to afford better options through some form of true school choice?
To those who say that public money should not be used to subsidize private institutions in any way (even when that way is a tax deduction or credit given to parents), your argument is disingenuous. Federal Pell Grants are funded with taxpayer dollars, and they may be used at private institutions of higher learning. Medicare and Medicaid are funded with taxpayer dollars, and those forms of publicly funded insurance may be used at private hospitals. This is the case because we recognize that the best options for higher education and medical care for an individual are not always at a public college or public hospital. We allow individuals who used those programs to make that call for themselves. Why should it be any different with K-12 education funding?
Yes, the state does have a constitutional obligation to provide a free public education to all students, and it should continue to do so while working on solutions that will fix a largely broken system. But in the meantime, legislators should be open to new ideas that can address the immediate concerns of parents who know that if their kindergarten-aged kids haven’t learned to read by third grade, they’re very likely to fail in the remainder of their school careers.
Let’s start to shift the focus away from preserving a flawed system and concentrate instead on the children who are in it. Let’s shift the immediate focus away from the public school apparatus and on to public school children and their unique needs. For some of those children, the answer may be to remain in the current system because they have the support and intellect to navigate it successfully, and the schools they are zoned for are the good ones. For others, it may mean a tax deduction, credit or voucher that would allow them to transfer into those good schools or to attend a private or parochial school nearby that will offer them better opportunities than their local public school. For others still, it may mean a tax credit that will offset the cost of homeschooling.
Those who oppose the current amendment on the grounds that it doesn’t do anything for the poor are right. The amendment is tiny step in the right direction, but it doesn’t go nearly far enough. It doesn’t offer real solutions to low-income families. Instead of passing token tax deductions that don’t fully address the problem just because they’re better than nothing, lawmakers should not be afraid to stand up for real reform. The Holy Grail that is public education needs to be fully scrutinized. When what we’ve got isn’t working for so many, no reform should be off the table and all possible solutions should be studied. Citizens who want to help children, especially the most disadvantaged, should be lobbying their legislators for more comprehensive school choice legislation, not less.
Amy Lazenby is a wife, mother of three and small business owner with her husband who splits her time between South Carolina and Georgia. She writes with a liberal world view on most issues, but enjoys exploring where the liberal and libertarian political axes intersect. Follow her on Twitter @Mrs_Laz.