Parents Pummeled by South Carolina Legislators

Published June 1, 2005

Democratic legislators in South Carolina slapped high-fives outside the state House of Representatives chamber May 4, celebrating a 60-53 vote to table a bill proposing tax credits and vouchers to give parents choices on where to send their children to school.

By tabling the bill–a version of the “Put Parents in Charge Act” proposed last year by Gov. Mark Sanford (R)–the legislators essentially killed it for the rest of the 2005 session.

Opponents cited a fiscal impact report in condemning as too costly the idea of creating tax credits for private school tuition. In mid-April, the state Board of Economic Advisors estimated the proposal could cost up to $231 million in state revenue over the next five years.

The revised bill, however, proposed May 4 by Reps. Shirley Hinson (R-Goose Creek) and Jim Merrill (R-Daniel Island), aimed to correct that problem by giving only students in failing schools in the state’s 85 districts the option of attending private school, combining tax credits with vouchers for low-income families.

No Discussion Allowed

The plan would have affected about 187 of the state’s 1,119 schools, including about 50 in the Charleston area. Members of the House refused to let the measure come up for debate.

“To table a thing, to not even discuss it, everyone was surprised at that,” said Park Gillespie, a South Carolina parent and public middle school teacher certified by the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards. “It didn’t say much about the people who voted to table it.

“Sadly, the legislature in South Carolina decided to close the marketplace of ideas, not to have competition of any kind. Incredible. I have given 16 years of my life to public education and am proud of it, but it is not the only game in town, and some people cannot afford what they need and a tax credit would help them out.”

Racial Issues Arose

As the votes to table the bill were being read off, the bill’s opponents began cheering so loudly in the chamber that Speaker David Wilkins (R-Greenville) asked them to leave. According to the Charleston Post and Courier, Rep. Ken Kennedy (D-Greeleyville) looked toward the pro-school choice spectators in the balcony on his way out and said, “All you out-of-town people go back to Colorado, go back to Washington, get the hell out of here.”

Kennedy explained to School Reform News later that he opposed the Put Parents in Charge Act because it would “only resegregate the schools in South Carolina.”

Though Kennedy spent three years in Brooklyn in the 1970s and sent his own children to private schools there, he said the opportunity “didn’t really help them” and that being able to attend better-performing private schools wasn’t the answer for students trapped in South Carolina’s failing public schools.

“What needs to happen in South Carolina is that the governor needs to look at the historical part of what’s happened in this state and give the poor counties equitable funding,” he said. “We need someone to really come into these communities and help us develop the infrastructure and move into the new economics that are happening across this state. This bill, to me, would just resegregate the schools and be devastating to these poor areas.

“I believe in private schools; my children went to them. I was able to pay for them to go, and if a parent can afford to send his kids there, God bless him. I just decided that was better for me and I could do it, but we shouldn’t use public monies to do that.”

Transportation Crisis Claimed

Rep. Joe Neal (D-Chester) said the bill contained two weaknesses: No mandate requiring all-white private academies in the state to accept vouchers from poor African-American students, and no means of addressing transportation problems for kids trying to attend schools outside their own neighborhoods and districts.

“When the courts ordered the schools to desegregate [in the 1960s], there was a mass exodus from the public school system, especially by white children, into private segregation academies,” he said. “This bill does not require those academies to accept any kids who apply. Also, those schools are located in areas that would make it difficult for black children to attend.

“We have a disparity here between school systems in poor areas and very wealthy areas, and that typically follows the lines of race. Those poor school districts would find themselves in a situation where the pitfall would be losing even more funds.”

Randy Page, president of South Carolinians for Responsible Government–an organization that supported Sanford’s proposal–said the bill specifically addressed transportation needs by including it in the tuition costs.

“South Carolina is the only state in the nation that owns and runs the school bus fleet,” he said. “If they were truly concerned about transportation, the vehicle is there to make it happen.”

Starting With Education

Page agreed South Carolina’s schools are still racially segregated by income, if not by law. But without creating a well-educated workforce, there is little hope of realizing Kennedy’s dream of developing the state’s poor rural areas, Page said.

“Whether we’re 43rd in the nation or 50th in terms of student performance, we’re at the bottom of the heap,” he said, referring to two reported national rankings for the state’s SAT scores. “Fifty-two percent of our ninth-graders don’t graduate in four years. Then we wonder why we’ve got problems with economic development and it all goes back to education. If we don’t have an educated populace, why would anybody want to move a plant down here?”

Vouchers Proven Successful Elsewhere

In other areas of the country where school vouchers have proven successful, such as Milwaukee and the District of Columbia, African-Americans have generally led the fight to create them. Studies of those programs show academic performance improves for the students who use vouchers to attend private school, as well as for students in the public schools, which find themselves having to compete for students.

Other analyses have revealed that public schools come out ahead financially when students are given vouchers. Though state money creating the voucher or tax credit follows the child to his new school, the public school still receives the federal government’s per-pupil spending for the child who has left, giving the school more money to spend to educate a smaller group of students.

Equal Funding Called For

Voucher opponents Kennedy and Neal said the solution for South Carolina’s failing schools lies in a court ruling that was still pending at press time.

In 1998, the legislature passed the Educational Accountability Act, an early stab at education reform requiring each school and student in the state to achieve prescribed performance levels. But because rural schools in what Kennedy called the state’s “area of educational shame” don’t have the same amount of funding from property taxes as those in the more industrialized areas of the state, several poor districts sued in state court to force the state government to give equal funding to every school, regardless of its location.

“Other states, like Texas and Vermont, have already done this and seen some dramatic increases in performance,” Neal said. “South Carolina needs to be following that example instead of giving some children an escape route and leaving others to languish.”

Monetary Solution Disputed

Proponents of the Put Parents in Charge Act disagreed.

“More money isn’t going to help unless you have the opinion that money helps,” Page said. “A lot of these black churches would love to start schools. These legislators are saying they don’t like this bill, but what have they offered? Nothing. So these kids are doomed to failure year in and year out.”

Because school choice has been proven to work elsewhere, Sanford said in a statement released after the vote that it was time to give it a shot in South Carolina.

“A lot of kids trapped in failing and below-average schools lost today, and a whole lot of parents looking to make a difference in the lives of those kids lost, too,” he said. “If we’ve ever going to get competitive as a state, at some point we’ve got to start putting the best interest of each individual South Carolina school kid ahead of the vested interests of a system that, despite the best efforts of a lot of great teachers across our state, too often isn’t meeting their needs.”

Karla Dial ([email protected]) is managing editor of School Reform News.