REAL ACCOUNTABILITY AT WORK IN LIMITED MARKET-BASED PROGRAM
Hundreds of special needs students in South Carolina are benefiting from a new scholarship program – and while it remains frustratingly small for hard core school choice supporters like us, it’s a start.
And it’s off to a good start …
The Palmetto State is home to a small, well-regulated parental choice program that provides tax credit funded scholarships to students with special needs. This program has done an enormous amount of good for this particular student population, and is even earning high praise from skeptics of school choice for its transparency and self-regulation.
The program was celebrated at a workshop in Columbia this week – one held by Access Opportunity on the anniversary of Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman’s birthday.
At the meeting, Access Opportunity announced a new and improved “Best Practices Pledge” – yet another move by the group to provide the public with information about the Scholarship Funding Organizations (or “SFOs”) that form the heart of the new choice program. These special charities can accept tax credit funded donations, and must expend ninety-five percent of their revenues in the form of special education scholarships.
All SFOs that sign the “Best Practices Pledge” agree never to accept donations from parents or guardians of children seeking scholarships. While the proviso that authorizes the Educational Credits for Exceptional Needs Children (ECENC) already forbids SFO donors from designating a specific student or school as a beneficiary of their gift, the commitment to entirely rule out any possibility of a quid pro quo voluntarily sets the bar even higher. It also provides a smart defense against efforts by opponents of the program who seek to eliminate individual income tax component entirely. Families who apply for scholarships from one charity remain free to donate to any of the other authorized SFOs.
This site has consistently, and unapologetically, advocated for parental tax credits to help all families make decisions for their own sons’ and daughters’ education. However, the existing special needs SFO program is not designed to be a universal parental credit, so it makes sense to ensure it doesn’t devolve into one.
The pledge also includes commitments to publicize details of the SFOs’ scholarship awarding process, the criteria for making those decisions, and the speedy release of details of the SFO financial operations (rather than waiting months through the release of state mandated audits and federal tax reporting).
That’s real accountability, people …
Not all the SFOs have signed on, and Access won’t comment on the specifics – though details of who has signed are posted on their website. That’s the brilliance of the program and the work of Access Opportunity: rather than relying on big government to micromanage and over-regulate the budding program, potential donors can make educated choices among several distinct SFOs, just as the families seeking the best special ed instruction can choose among the participating independent schools.
It’s the marketplace at work, in other words.
That marketplace is directly responsible for hundreds of disabled children attending the specialized private school of their families’ choice, scores of credentialed and unique independent schools answering directly to parents, and distinct options for donors and self-policing by program advocates and participants.
It’s refreshing to see South Carolina doing something right for a group of children who need – and deserve – it. Now it’s time to expand that success throughout the entire academic marketplace in South Carolina … something it’s clear huge majorities of South Carolinians support.
You can learn more about the SFOs, and all the schools across South Carolina that serve special needs students, at Access’ site, IndependentED.org.