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Lazenby: About That School Choice Story

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Earlier this week I wrote an opinion piece for this website asking lawmakers to address the immediate concerns of parents whose children are enrolled in a flawed public education system in South Carolina by passing some form of school choice legislation.

I won’t re-hash that piece here because you can read if for yourself, but I would like to take this opportunity to address some of the comments and questions I received from parents, educators and administrators in the wake of this column. I’d also like to clear up what seems to be some confusion about my premise. Since this piece ran, I have received a lot of questions, both publicly and privately, because I am politically liberal on most issues – and you don’t typically see an argument for school choice coming from the left.

First let me address some of the more personal issues that were raised. I want to make it clear that no one paid me to write that op-ed – or this follow-up piece. I wrote it as a concerned parent who is looking for solutions. I attended public schools in South Carolina; some were good, some were bad. My children attend public school. I am not asking for anyone to pay for my children to attend private school. If you would like to label me a “voucher clown,” I suggest that you move on from silly ad hominem attacks and propose some real solutions to this state’s public education crisis.

As I said, 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.

I am not advocating giving up on the public school system at all. I am trying to find ways to save the children who are currently in the system while we work on longer term solutions to fix its underlying problems.

I am primarily looking for ways to allow children in sub-par schools to be able to go to better public schools (which they are not zoned for) or to public charter schools – if that is the right fit for them. It is an inability to pay to go to better, out-of-zone schools that is the problem for so many who are in failing public schools. Whether it is the fee that must be paid to attend a neighboring school district (which offsets taxes not paid by non-resdients), the cost of transportation to another school, or the cost of the time a parent must spend shuttling that child to and from school instead of working – or even the cost of a uniform required by a public charter school, these are expenses many families cannot afford.

A voucher or tax credit could make those expenses more affordable for those families.

To those who say that a voucher or tax credit program for low income or disabled students won’t work because parents are not present to advocate on behalf of their children, I would ask you to reflect upon any community initiatives that have helped these populations through a joint public-private partnership. Where I live, the Northside Initiaive – which consisted of low-income citizens coming together with city government, law enforcement, and various non-profit agencies to improve their circumstances and better their own community – is one such program.

Why couldn’t a voucher program for these citizens be coordinated through such an initiative that already has proven results in this community?

I would prefer that children stay in public schools in general because, as a society, we have an obligation (not to mention a constitutional mandate) to educate our children for the greater good. An educated populace raises the standard of living for us all. That is why we spend taxpayer dollars to educate our children. Also, private and religious schools are not mandated to accept and use resources on every student as public schools are required to do.

But I also recognize that standard public school isn’t the best fit for every child. For some children it’s a public charter school, and for others it may be a private charter school, independent school, parochial school, or home schooling. One size does not fit all when it comes to education; No one truly believes that it does, so why not use those same taxpayer dollars to ensure that children are getting the right education for them. That was the origination of the public charter school system, which is paid for with taxpayer dollars. Why can’t we extend the same concept to other types of schools? To those who say the issue there is a lack of accountability with private or religious schools, I ask you just how well that government oversight is working out in South Carolina’s “Corridor of Shame” schools?

The neighborhood school model that our current public school system is based on is clearly segregated by socioeconomic status – if you can afford to live where the best schools are, you do. And if you can’t, you don’t. That must change if we are ever to have more than just a few “good schools” in any given district. And while there is token “choice” within some school districts, parents know that capacity limits are often reached before they can get their application paperwork in, and other restrictions such as requiring enrollment for a certain period of time once a child is accepted – even if the school turns out to be a bad fit for the child – makes it no real choice at all.

We need true open enrollment policies to prevent this from happening.

Does that mean that some schools will close and be consolidated with others? Yes. That’s already happening in public school districts, and I don’t see it as a bad thing. Doing the right thing for children often means making difficult decisions that do not please everyone, but I’m more concerned with getting children to the right schools than I am with closing underperforming neighborhood schools. If tools exists that will help parents (or grandparents or social welfare agencies working with children) get to better schools – which more often than not will be other public schools because the price of private school tuition is usually too high to be covered by a voucher or tax credit amount that the legislature will vote for anyway – then why not give it to them?

If progressives truly believe that each child deserves an education that will help him fulfill his unique potential, then why prevent him from getting it because “school choice” and “voucher” sound like dirty words to you? They very well could be the salvation that a child in a bad situation needs to rise above his circumstances. Don’t deny him that because you value preserving the system over meeting the immediate needs of the children in it. The five years (or more) it could take to test a new program for effectiveness within a failing public school could mean the difference between successful graduation and dropping out for a middle-schooler.

The bottom line is that we have a problem that we need to fix for the sake of our children. Let’s leave all of our options on the table.

amy lazenby

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.

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