South Carolina Leading the Pack?



By 02/02/2011

5 Comments | Print | NO PDF |

One of the peculiar facts about the school choice movement is its relative weakness in the country’s most conservative region, the South.  Among the eleven states of the old South, only Florida receives a grade higher than C for its charter school laws from the Center for Education Reform (CER). And arguably the most conservative of southern states, South Carolina, receives a middling C in contrast to deep blue California’s A.  South Carolina has only 45 charter schools enrolling less than 13,000 students.  According to CER charter schools have “highly contentious” relationships with school districts and receive only $3,400 per-pupil compared to $11,400 for traditional public school students.

Somewhat surprisingly, then, South Carolina is on the cusp of leapfrogging most of the competition by passing one of the most ambitious pieces of school choice legislation in the country.  Called the South Carolina Education Opportunity Act (SCEOA), the legislation would provide tax credits to parents choosing to send their children to private school, extend smaller tax credits to homeschooling families, and provide scholarships for low-income students to attend private schools.  The scholarships would be dispensed by Student Scholarship Organizations.

Pointing to the success of Florida’s Tax Credit Scholarship Program (see “Does Competition Improve Schools?”), the bill’s supporters contend that it would improve student achievement and save money.   The CATO Institute has already weighed in, saying that the bill would “do a better job” than similar school choice programs in other states.

While one would hope that the legislature would be most interested in the academic gains generated by the bill, its budgetary effects might be what gets it through the legislature.  The state has been hit particularly hard by the recession, and over the past few years has had to rely on furloughs, reductions in local aid, and various cuts to balance the budget. The scholarships and tax credits could not exceed half of the state’s spending per student, which averages around $5,000.  (The remainder comes from the federal government and would be unaffected by the program.) Thus, for every student taking advantage of a scholarship and tax credit, the state would save $2,500.  Regardless of the legislators’ motivations, the bill’s passage would undoubtedly be welcome news to parents who simply want a better education for their kids.

Should the bill pass, opponents of school choice will no doubt be waiting with knives sharpened and a battalion of attorneys. That makes the U.S. Supreme Court’s pending decision in Arizona Christian School Tuition Organization v. Winn even more important.  Arizona passed a scholarship program funded by tax credits and subsequently found itself sued by the ACLU (and nominal plaintiffs that it rounded up) because many of the scholarship organizations were religious and sent recipients to religious schools.  If the Court sides with Arizona and the Obama Administration, which to its credit defended Arizona’s program and said that the ACLU and its plaintiffs shouldn’t even have standing to sue, it would go a long way toward insulating the SCOA from a legal challenge.

-Joshua Dunn




Comment on this article
  • sc resident says:

    Surely someone who writes for a national publication on education understands that the supposed cost savings won’t be that simple.

    Schools have certain fixed costs — from electric bills to lunchroom workers to librarians. Those costs remain in place as long as a school is open at all. Really, teaching positions are about the only major costs that can be affected much by lowering enrollment (unless so many kids leave for a private school that a district can fully close a school, which doesn’t seem likely in SC, given the number of existing private schools here). And if a school loses 30-40 students spread across 6 grade levels (in a K-5 elementary school, for example), it will likely be hard to cut a teaching position without increasing class sizes.

    So, the idea of cost savings for the school system is likely a fiction in most real-world cases in SC.

    What’s also striking about this plan is that it guarantees a tax credit to affluent families but guarantees nothing to the state’s poorest families. They may or may not get a scholarship….while the rich will automatically get money back whether they need it or not.

  • Duh says:

    The poorest kids are already the ones being failed by the government schools in SC and across the South.
    The “rich” families will put their kids in private school no matter what or move to a county with better public schools. A $2,200 state tax credit is nothing to them.
    Obviously, the only people moved by personal credits are middle class families and the scholarship model is a clever way to avoid the pitfalls of a voucher design. More to the point, the scholarship program for middle low and low low income families is proven from FL.

  • zviscidi says:

    Actually, the public universities inside SC have done a great job taking over and reforming some of the weaker school districts. For example, look at Burke High School. This drop out factory has been slowly turned around by the great education professionals working at the College of Charleston. Also the rural Pee Dee region has recently been in discussion with TFA. Allowing these innovators into their schools, these programs are slowly turning around. School choice will clearly help these students as they transition from unalterable drop out factories into reform minded alternative programs that emphasize innovation and 21st century learning.

  • [...] Joshua Dunn at EducationNext also says it is a good bill for our state budget! While one would hope that the legislature would be most interested in the academic gains generated by the bill, its budgetary effects might be what gets it through the legislature. The state has been hit particularly hard by the recession, and over the past few years has had to rely on furloughs, reductions in local aid, and various cuts to balance the budget. The scholarships and tax credits could not exceed half of the state’s spending per student, which averages around $5,000. (The remainder comes from the federal government and would be unaffected by the program.) Thus, for every student taking advantage of a scholarship and tax credit, the state would save $2,500. Regardless of the legislators’ motivations, the bill’s passage would undoubtedly be welcome news to parents who simply want a better education for their kids. [...]

  • sc resident says:

    The local Tea Party folks have touted your column here recently, Dr. Dunn.

    But, again, surely you realize that the cost savings you tout aren’t so simple. Fixed overhead costs…..the fact that some kids cost more (much, much more, in some cases) to have in school than others….Also, giving money to families — millionaires in some cases — who already planned on putting their kids in private school anyway wouldn’t save the public schools any money at, would it?

    Dr. Dunn — you’re a guy with a dang PhD. from UVA. You’re obviously a learned and extremely intelligent person. But these basic financial concerns seem to elude you. That puzzles me.

    Meanwhile, we’re talking about a bill that would have guaranteed tax credit money to wealthy families but not promised anything to the poor. They might have gotten a scholarship through an SGO — and might not have. So…..a guarantee for the rich, and a maybe for the poor. Do you really think that is sound education policy?

    Finally, I’m not sure I understand zviscidi’s point. Seems that this person is indicating that some strong innovations are ALREADY taking place in our public schools.

  • Comment on this Article

    Name ()


    *

         5 Comments
    Sponsored Results
    Sponsors

    The Hoover Institution at Stanford University - Ideas Defining a Free Society

    Harvard Kennedy School Program on Educational Policy and Governance

    Thomas Fordham Institute - Advancing Educational Excellence and Education Reform

    Sponsors