South Carolina Grassroots Group Promotes Choice

Published February 1, 2009

A new, informal group called School Choice Now-Spartanburg has sprouted as a grassroots effort to promote its ideas and make contact with legislators as certain bills wind their way through the South Carolina statehouse.

Headed by Brantlee Fulmer, chief executive of Merryland Child Development Center, and Nicole Cobb, a local Republican activist, School Choice Now has met twice and is building an e-mail list to reach its members.

Initially, Fulmer said, School Choice Now was following the lead of South Carolinians for Responsible Government (SCRG), but later expanded upon that. School Choice Now is taking ideas and information from different groups with similar beliefs and choosing what it likes and doesn’t like to support, she said.

First Amendment Freedom

Fulmer, who has a three-year-old son, said she agrees with allowing tax dollars to partially pay for private education, and thinks the larger issue of school choice is misunderstood.

“As a parent, I may or may not necessarily agree with the direction that a particular public school would go in,” Fulmer said. “We’re fortunate in Spartanburg because unlike the lower part of the state, we have some really good schools. But from a personal perspective, I prefer more of a Christian education. So, when the time comes, I may choose to send my child to a Christian school.”

Critics say applying the “choice” label to any kind of tax credit or voucher that takes away from the public school system is misleading.

“With the cuts that have already taken place—either across the board or the targeted ones—those of us in public education or other public institutions are really struggling to meet our mission,” said Spartanburg School District 7 Superintendent Thomas White.

“And anything that further erodes those revenues will continue to degrade our ability to accomplish our mission in K-12 public education,” White said.

‘Issues’ With Vehicles

White says his district supports school choice, in terms of choice within the public education system. He cites a Montessori program at E.P. Todd Elementary School, an International Baccalaureate program at Jesse Boyd Elementary School, and the technology focus at Chapman Elementary School as examples of what’s offered.

“We’ve embraced the ideas of choice, and parents taking a look and saying, ‘Which one is the best for my child?'” said White, who is president of the superintendents division of the South Carolina Association of School Administrators.

“We’re not against choice, but I do have an issue with tuition tax credits or vouchers,” White said.

Grassroots Revolution

Neil Mellen, a spokesman for SCRG, said grassroots efforts similar to School Choice Now-Spartanburg have begun forming across South Carolina. Families interested in private schools, homeschoolers, parents of special-needs children, and those who see tax credits or vouchers as a social justice issue, a way to break the achievement gap, have stopped working at cross purposes and started working systemically, he said.

“What’s happening is that some of these groups are starting to come together—especially among the homeschool and special-needs kids,” Mellen said. “These guys are the ones who send out mass e-mail chains, and there’s [been] a lot of talk among them but not between them. Now, there’s starting to be more communication.”

Tough economic times are causing more people who have been peripherally interested in this issue in the past to become more passionate about it, Mellen said.

SCRG was one of several entities funded by New York millionaire Howard Rich and his associates to support candidates who promote their agenda.

Upcoming Bill

House Speaker Bobby Harrell (R-Charleston) said he supports school choice but doesn’t see it getting much attention early on [this] year’s legislative calendar. It could increase as the year progresses, he said.

State Rep. Keith Kelly (R-Spartanburg) thinks the matter will continue to come up during the next two years.

“All that out-of-state money that flowed in here the last two years didn’t flow in for no reason,” Kelly said. “I do not understand how anybody can believe that taking money out of Dorman High School, or Byrnes High School, or from the R.D. Anderson Vocational Center will make them better schools.”

Rep. James Merrill (R-Charleston) pre-filed a bill in December that, if passed, would create a $200 tax credit for books and supplies for parents who homeschool their children or send them to private school.

White called that bill “a small hole in the dam that could lead down the wrong path.”

“It’s not a matter of the size of the dollars involved—it’s the principles of the thing,” White said.

Jason Spencer ([email protected]) is a staff writer at the Spartanburg Herald-Journal in South Carolina, where this story originally appeared on December 11, 2008. Reprinted with permission.