South Carolina Superintendent Offers Public School Choice Plan

Published January 1, 2008

South Carolina’s top education official is proposing a new public school choice program, but the governor and other reform-minded critics are skeptical.

State Superintendent of Education Jim Rex (D) is pushing for a revised version of an open-enrollment bill vetoed by Gov. Mark Sanford (R) in June 2007. The latest edition appears unlikely to satisfy the governor’s concerns or those of school choice advocates.

Rex’s plan is being advocated in conjunction with the State Department of Education’s new Office of Public School Choice and Office of Innovation, created since Rex took office in January 2007. The superintendent said he wants to see a variety of public education programs grow and flourish, especially Montessori and single-gender schools.

“When I ran for this office, I talked about the need for more innovation,” Rex said. “We were doing too many things that didn’t work for too many kids.”

District Decisions

Under the proposal, all 85 South Carolina school districts would be required to undergo a two-year school choice process. In the first year, districts would form committees to design a public school choice plan suitable to local needs. In the second year, districts would implement at least one additional option at each level–elementary, middle, and high school.

But critics say putting district leaders in charge of creating more options is not a promising tactic.

“When you give ultimate control of a choice program to people who have opposed it, that’s the fox guarding the henhouse,” said Joel Sawyer, Sanford’s spokesman.

Rex disagrees, saying school districts should be given a chance in spite of past problems.

“The argument that because you haven’t means you never will, I don’t believe that,” Rex said. “I expect South Carolina to be a leader in single-gender and Montessori options. And if it disappoints people for a variety of ideological reasons, I’m sorry for that. They ought to withhold their judgment for a year or two and then decide whether it works.”

Fewer Choices

Transportation arrangements and complications with unequal funding between districts caused Rex to scrap a mandatory interdistrict proposal in the 2007 bill. Eight districts already participate in interdistrict choice, and more would have been allowed to join under the discarded plan.

The superintendent says his new plan should meet most families’ needs.

“The vast majority of parents want choices in their local communities near their homes,” Rex said. “As public school choice [plans become] more common, you’re going to see the vast majority of them within districts and within schools.”

Not So Fast

In his June 2007 veto message, Sanford wrote that by offering only an illusion of hope for students to be able to transfer to a successful school, the public school choice bill “would be a step backwards.”

The superintendent’s concept for a revised plan may hold even less appeal for the governor.

“We’re going to take a close look at anything he proposes, but we’re not going to support something that provides fewer choices,” Sawyer said.

Private Schools

Other choice proponents agree the superintendent’s proposal should be made more expansive.

“In order to give parents choice and to have schools work, we have to have private school choice,” said Randy Page, president of South Carolinians for Responsible Government. “Without private school choice, we don’t believe there will be enough change made to offer better education in South Carolina.”

But Rex wants the tax dollars to be spent only at public schools.

“I believe strongly if we’re going to have tax dollars involved, we need to have fully accountable use of those dollars,” Rex said, implying accountability could be achieved only through public schools.

Though previous legislative attempts to initiate vouchers or tax credit programs in South Carolina have fallen short, some reformers remain convinced they offer a better remedy.

“A public school choice-only plan does little to help the children and parents of South Carolina,” Page said. “We have large areas of our state that have no passing schools. To even get to an average school, a number of those students would have to travel a good ways.”

Quality and Quantity

The superintendent said the same can be said of available private options.

“The problem we have is the assumption that there are quality private schools available to these students,” Rex said. “Depending on the area of our state, there are no private schools nearby.

“There are a lot of things we need to address to improve the quality of the choices, not just the quantity of the choices,” Rex added.

Sawyer said the best way to improve quality will come through expanding the range of schooling options available to families.

“We certainly would be in favor of giving more choice to parents, both in the public and private sector,” Sawyer said. “The marketplace works, and we think it will work in education if more parents are empowered to make good choices as consumers.”

Ben DeGrow ([email protected]) is a policy analyst for the Independence Institute, a free-market think tank in Golden, Colorado.