Advocates see school choice bill as parents’ right

CHARLESTON — South Carolinians for Responsible Government urges parents who support school choice to act now, before it is too late.

The S.C. Education Opportunity Act (S.520) has been introduced in the state Senate and was scheduled to be filed in the state House of Representatives on March 24, according to Randy Page, president of SCRG, which is a grassroots organization dedicated to providing educational options for all children in South Carolina.

Sen. Robert Ford, D-Charleston, is the lead sponsor of the bill that would provide tuition credit to parents across the state and give children stuck in at-risk schools the opportunity to go somewhere better.

“One day we’re going to fix those failing schools, but in the meantime, parents who have to send their kids to that school should have a choice,” Ford said. “Every kid deserves the right to a decent education.”

He said children who receive an inadequate education face a limited future because their potential is handicapped from the very beginning.

Ford said he was once a defender of the public school system, but was swayed a few years ago by an impassioned speech from Sen. Darrell Jackson. He started researching the subject, visited states with school choice, and last year published a brochure with the tagline “School Choice Should be a Right, Not a Privilege.”

“It was a switch I should have made a long time ago,” Ford said. “It’s a switch anyone who cares about children should make.”

The proposed bill will provide tax credits to any person in South Carolina who files a state tax return and pays part of a student’s tuition.

The credit for tuition of a child with special needs will average $4,867, or 100 percent of the state’s average student spending. Children zoned to attend failing public schools will receive 75 percent, or $3,650, and all other students will be eligible for a credit of 50 percent of state spending, averaging $2,433. No credits will be given greater than the actual spending on tuition. Parents who home school their children can claim up to $1,000 per child in credits based on their instruction related expenses.

The education act also aids families with an income 200 percent or more below the federal poverty level, roughly $41,000 for a four-person household, by offering tuition scholarships. Corporate and individual donors to a non-profit Student Scholarship Organization will also receive state income tax credits. Any money that does not reach low-income children in the form of scholarships will be given to the state’s General Fund.

Reps. Eric M. Bedingfield, R-Greenville, and Tracy R. Edge, R-Horry County, are co-sponsoring the bill in the House.

“It’s the only answer to helping the underprivileged children of this state get a better education,” Bedingfield said. “The elite among us can quickly afford to send their children to any school of their choice.”

He added that those without financial resources should have the same right and not be boxed into a system with fewer opportunities.

Opponents of school choice argue that it will take money away from the public school system and violate the First Amendment separation of church and state.

Bedingfield said the funding issue is a bogus argument.

He explained that schools receive about $5,000 per child, and if a parent decides to take a tax credit and send their child elsewhere, the public school still receives a portion of that money, but without the expense of educating the child.

So if 10 students left an at-risk school under the choice plan, that school would still receive at least $1,217 for each of those children, or a total of $12,170 in extra funding.

Sister Julia Hutchison, superintendent of education for the Diocese of Charleston, said there is no Constitutional violation of church and state because religious-based schools will not receive state funding.

“The money goes to the parent, and they use it for their choice,” she said.

Whether it is a parochial school with religion as a central component or another type school, the decision over what is best for each child would be up to the parent, Sister Julia said.

Catholic and other religious-based schools and private academies have been proponents of school choice since the issue first appeared in its present-day form in the 1950s. Supporters have long argued that the one-size-fits-all approach to education does not work for every child, and note that parents who choose private schools face an unfair burden because they are unable to use their tax dollars to support their children.

Neil Mellen, with SCRG, said this type of double payment punishes parents struggling to make the right decision for their children. He added that state authority over a child’s education should be second to a parent’s authority.

Ford said he and Bedingfield make an odd couple, but hopes they will be effective in having the bill passed. The two men co-authored an opinion piece in the March 1 edition of The Greenville News and stated, “It’s time we give opportunities to our lower income families to free them from decaying failing schools and give their children the opportunity they deserve. Public, private, parochial — the choice would be up to the parents. It’s that simple.”

Bedingfield encourages parents to voice their support for school choice by visiting, clicking “find your legislator” on the left side, and e-mailing, calling or writing each one.

Page also suggests members of the community encourage their legislators to support the bill, write letters of support to weekly and daily newspapers, or visit the state capital to lobby for the bill.

Supporters are hopeful about their chances this year, noting that Georgia just passed a similar education act in 2008.

Other states that have some form of school choice program include Arizona, Florida, Iowa, Illinois, Louisiana, Maine, Minnesota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Utah, Vermont, Wisconsin and Washington, D.C.

Current sponsors of South Carolina’s bill are Senators Ford; Kevin L. Bryant, R-Anderson; Lee Bright, R-Spartanburg; Thomas C. Davis, R-Beaufort; Michael L. Fair, R-Greenville; Michael T. Rose, R-Charleston/Dorchester counties; W. Greg Ryberg, R-Aiken; and David L. Thomas, R-Greenville. The House has more than 40 sponsors so far.

A Snapshot of School Choice
1778: The notion of the voucher system was first introduced by Adam Smith, who said the state should give parents money to hire suitable teachers.
1798: Thomas Paine encouraged states to provide poor families with money to educate their children.
1840: Bishop John Hughes of New York protested the anti-Catholic bias in public schools and sought state aid for Catholic schools. He was denied and went on to create a Catholic School system with private funds.
1842: The Maclay Bill barred religious instruction from public schools but denied state funding for denominational schools.
1950: The contemporary notion of the voucher system was born and became the subject of heated debate that still rages today.
1990s: At first, the concept of school choice and vouchers were dealt defeat after defeat. But programs in states such as Wisconsin, Ohio and Florida have found success.