What’s the point of school choice?

The debate over school choice has been revived by the passage of H.4894 in the South Carolina House, and we’re glad to see the subject debated again. We just have one small problem with the bill: it won’t actually help parents find better educational options for their children.

But rather than explain our objections in a point-by-point analysis of the bill, we felt it would be more effective to republish a letter from a South Carolina parent, Mr. Jeffrey Betsch (his letter has appeared elsewhere on the web in recent days). So, with his permission, we’re reposting his letter in full:

I am the proud father of two terrific girls. They are fun-loving, caring and let’s face it, just really cool to hang around with. Even though their mother and I are divorced, my ex and I and extended family have done an incredible job in keeping their lives as stable as possible. My girls have both just recently tested into the Advanced Placement courses and will begin those courses next year. The experience my girls have had in public school up until this year has been a very positive one. I personally did not have much interest in “school choice” because my girls were in a terrific school, had great teachers and the classmates were outstanding. I was apathetic, to put it mildly, when it came to my position on school choice. That, my friends, has changed dramatically this year.

My oldest daughter, at the ripe old age of 10, still has a great air of innocence about her. She still believes in Santa, the tooth fairy, and the Easter bunny. We wanted her to remain a child as long as she could before the ugliness of the real world sets in. These are things that as a parent I control and it is a blast to watch her just enjoy life so much. Sadly, the real world has now begun to force its ugly head into her life through bullying.

My oldest daughter is not the fastest runner by any stretch of the imagination. She is not gifted athletically. She excels in the classroom; she is a terrific painter and artist. She is very kind and forgiving and a people-pleaser at heart. She avoids conflict and tries to see the humor in everything. But how do you find the humor in being chased around the playground by two boys who are swinging a stick at you? Or when you trip and fall to the ground then have multiple girls in your class stand over you calling you names and telling you to stand up and fight. Where is the humor in that? Where is the humor when the principal tells you, after speaking to the group of kids, it really is nothing more than a misunderstanding? Where is the humor when the guidance counselor of the school tells you to handle this type of harassment “by ignoring it”? How in heaven’s name do you ignore someone swinging a stick at you, or have people standing over you egging you on to fight?

On a daily basis she is told that she is “fat,” or called a “fat***” by her classmates. They will not let her eat with them at lunch; at recess she is relegated to sitting in a corner of the playground because no one wants to play with her. This is a child who is so outgoing that her picture is next to the word “outgoing” in the dictionary. Yet she lives an isolated life around the people she used to long to be with.

As a father, what can I do? I have talked with the teacher; I have talked with the principle. They tell my daughter to tell them when something like these things happen. So, when she does, what does the teacher do? Tells her to hush, shush, and sit down. Now my daughter is not comfortable to talk with the one person who should be helping her. The one authoritative figure in her eyes has failed her and let her down. How would you feel if your daughter crumbles in your arms sobbing so hard that she looses her breathe from crying? How would you feel if she told you that she hates school, when only 8 months prior she loved it? How would you feel if you saw your child’s grades start to fall? What makes this worse is that now her classmates know they can get away with treating her in this manner, and this will only perpetuate once the school year begins again in August. It will just continue happening for a very long time. So what can she do? The authority figures in her life, she now feels that she cannot trust or go to. So what can she do? She cannot fight back or she will get in trouble as well. So what should she do?

How would you feel if your daughter looks at you and says. Dad I do not understand, I ask the kids what is wrong with me so I can fix it? As a parent how would you feel that your child feels so strongly to be liked that she is literally begging the kids who torment her, to tell her what to fix?

What can I do? I can talk all day long about her being mistreated, I can have parent-teacher meetings. But it’s NOTHING if the teacher and the rest of the staff do nothing to stop it. I will be banned from student functions if I cause a stink. I will go to jail if I do what I really want to do and say what I really want to say. I do have one option, and that is to get my daughters into a private school. This is a viable option except for one thing. I am not wealthy. I live paycheck to paycheck because I take care of my kids’ needs. I leave nothing for myself. I have to go to food banks to get food when I do not have my daughters. I make a good wage, but my child support payments zap my income to a level that it makes it difficult to provide just my basics. I could take on a second job, but then that would impede my ability to spend as much time as I can with my girls. That is in the end not a viable option. So now there is one final measure to which I can hope for and that is the passing of the school choice bill. The passing of this bill will allow for me to be able to get my kids out of this public school and into a private school where they will be better taken care of. Where acts like this against my kids will not only fall into punishment of some kind, but if it persisted would mean the expulsion of that child or children. It puts me back in control again as a parent. It protects my child from bullying. Your laws have failed my daughter. For those of you who are wavering on this, if you are undecided, if you were in my shoes, what would you do? You would do all you could to protect your child, but what if the public school system handcuffs your ability to do so? Then what?

For the sake of my daughter, for my sake, so that I can afford to get her into a safe environment. Please vote in favor of the school choice bill. My daughter’s future rests in your hands.

Now, what about H.4894? That’s the bill the House passed back in March (it’s now in the Senate Finance Committee) and that proponents describe as a “groundbreaking” school choice bill. Well, as our policy analyist Andrea Sepenzis pointed out last week at the Statehouse Report, since the bill offers a modest tax deduction rather than a tax creditto families, the bill wouldn’t help Mr. Betsch at all. He doesn’t make sufficient income to take advantage of the deduction, and even if he did, he would only be receive a fraction of what private school costs. The bill also provides tax credits for contributions to scholarship-granting organizations that help low-income families, but the credit is only designed to encourage charitable giving and won’t translate into any help for Mr. Betsch’s daughter, if indeed it encourages any giving at all beyond current levels.

School choice is supposed to be about actually providing help for people to find better educational options for their children, not insignificant gestures in the name of “school choice.”

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