An immediate legislative response to the court’s education decision

By Tom Davis and Kevin Bryantdavis.tom
Last month, the South Carolina State Supreme Court ruled the General Assembly had failed in its constitutional duty to provide students in eight impoverished schools districts with an opportunity to receive a “minimally adequate education,” and ordered it to identify and solve the problems.  We believe the Court overstepped its authority in this ruling and acted (as the dissent to the Court’s ruling puts it) “as a super-legislature,” but that’s an argument for another day.  Right now, it’s more important to analyze what the Court said and to consider what an appropriate legislative response might be.
We think the legislative inquiry must begin with an understanding that the Court did not rule the amount of money spent on the state’s system of free public schools was insufficient. The Court made this point time and again: “It is striking that the parties have focused narrowly on a struggle between education expenditures and education outcomes”; “It is time for the Defendants to take a broader look at the principal causes for the unfortunate performance of students … beyond mere funding”; and “[T]he evidence demonstrates an intersection of statutes and ever increasing funding streams…”
Not surprisingly, however, the Court’s clear directive – i.e., stop throwing money at the problem and start focusing on why, as it held, “there is a clear disconnect between spending and results” – has been ignored by the “education professionals.”  The School Boards Association, the South Carolina Association of School Administrators and the South Carolina Association of School Business Officials, with help from a private law firm to whom they annually pay millions of dollars in fees, has come up with something called the South Carolina Jobs Education and Tax Act, which they market using the clever acronym “SC JET.”  The primary feature of SC JET, recently filed as a bill in the state House of Representatives, is a massive new statewide property tax that a recent AP story says “is expected to cost hundreds of millions of dollars.”
The Court rightly noted the General Assembly has “disproportionately funded poorer counties such as the Plaintiff Districts in the past with little noticeable impact on student achievement rates,” and we think SC JET and similar proposals to massively increase taxes in order to throw even more money into a broken system is legislative malpractice.  If children in poorer school districts are not being provided an opportunity for an adequate education – and we agree with the Court they are not – then we should expand on a program that has actually worked for our most vulnerable children.
For years our state’s system of public education has failed special-needs students, e.g., those with Downs’ Syndrome, multiple sclerosis, autism, etc.  No one seriously disputes that failure.  In June of 2013, after many stalled attempts, the Educational Credits for Special Needs Children (ECENC) budget proviso was passed by the General Assembly, and as a result hundreds of students with physical and cognitive challenges have been able to enroll in specialized private schools.
Here’s how ECENC has worked: Individuals and corporations have made $13 million in charitable donations ($8 million since this July, a sum limited by a statewide cap) to scholarship funding organizations (SFOs), and SFOs have awarded tuition scholarships to students with special needs, with strict documentation of each child’s learning needs being required.  Parents then select a school that best fits the needs of their child, and the choices are rich: over 80 private schools now participate in the ECENC, and more than 200 statewide are eligible.  Yes, allowing taxpayers to make $13 million in charitable donations “costs” the state, but the revenue forgone is substantially less than what traditional public schools were spending to provide inferior services to these children; in short, there’s much better value provided at substantially less cost.
The Court ordered the General Assembly to “comprehensively analyze the troubling issues preventing educational opportunity in the [impoverished] Districts,” and one way to provide immediate relief would be to expand the scope of the ECENC proviso to meet the needs of low-income families in those areas.  That proviso has already proven children’s lives can be meaningfully changed through parental decision-making, coupled with charitable giving, and there’s no reason why children now trapped in failing schools should be denied this immediate relief while the General Assembly goes about the larger task of enacting other necessary reforms.
Kevin Bryant is a State Senator from Anderson County and Tom Davis is a State Senator from Beaufort County.