Give school tax credits a try
Expanding school choice expands educational opportunities. So why limit school choice to the public education system?
The obvious answer: politics. The education establishment remains a powerful force influencing state legislatures — and Congress. It also remains steadfastly opposed to helping even small numbers of poor children transfer to private schools from public schools that are shortchanging them.
Against that familiar backdrop, an S.C. Senate education subcommittee held a hearing at the Statehouse Thursday to consider arguments for and against proposed legislation that would provide tax credits and scholarships for low-income and special-needs children to transfer from struggling public schools to private schools.
We hope the senators fulfilled the “hearing” purpose by listening closely to a woman whose son was bringing home high marks as a fifth-grader at a public school in Myrtle Beach. As our Yvonne Wenger reported, that mother then discovered that her son, who has dyslexia, was reading below the fifth-grade level.
So the family found a better school for him — private Trident Academy in Mount Pleasant. The family decided that the financial demands of private-school tuition and a second residence 100 miles from home was worth it. Yet many families in our state can’t afford that educational choice.
Also at Thursday’s hearing, S.C. Education Superintendent Jim Rex reprised the familiar charge that private schools are not “accountable.” That stale argument ignores the fundamental accountability that comes with an informed family’s educational choice.
Too bad that the bill appears doomed, and that the man who introduced it, longtime civil-rights activist Sen. Robert Ford, D-Charleston, has become the target of harsh criticism for daring to challenge the orthodoxy of the public-education lobby — and of the civil-rights hierarchy.
That’s despite the results of a new survey reporting that black voters in South Carolina, by 43-40 percent, favor using state-funded scholarships to private schools for children in public schools that don’t meet their needs. The same poll showed 53 percent of black voters believe that a tax-credit or scholarship program giving families the option of a private school for their children would improve the state’s abysmal high school graduation rate.
Tax-credit foes, including the Rev. Joe Darby of Charleston, first vice-president of the state NAACP, challenged the significance of the poll, pointing out that it was funded by a group that advocates using public funds for private-school choice.
But it seems only natural for parents to seek educational alternatives when their children attend public schools that deliver consistently dismal academic results. Some poor children have become much better students after leaving such schools to attend private schools — including most of the children in a pilot voucher program for approximately 1,700 low-income students in the high-cost, low-performance Washington, D.C., public school system. That program was recently pushed to the brink of extinction by Congress and the U.S. Education Department.
You don’t have to be a conservative ideologue to be dismayed by the looming elimination of that promising voucher system, which had earned good grades in an education department study. A scathing editorial last week in The Washington Post, hardly a right-wing hotbed, focused on the private-school choices made by many federal-lawmaker parents as “the gap between what Congress practices and what it preaches.” The editorial also accurately reported: “No one has been able to offer any evidence of the drawbacks of this small, local program, while evidence of its benefits has been mounting.”
Those benefits don’t make vouchers or tax credits for private school a panacea for American education. Not every private school has the room or inclination to take transfers from public schools. Not every area has sufficient private-school space to make that approach feasible.
But why not craft limited choice programs that include private-school options, like the one in Washington? With this year’s tax-credit bill evidently stymied, why not create a pilot program along the lines of the successful Washington model?
Just because such programs can’t benefit every child doesn’t mean they shouldn’t benefit any child. And just because foes of vouchers and tax credits are so adamant — and so politically powerful — doesn’t mean lawmakers should ignore the continuing plight of children stuck in public schools that aren’t educating them.
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