Progress on School Choice?

NEXT TIME LAWMAKERS CLAIM THEY’VE DONE SOMETHING ABOUT SCHOOL CHOICE, TAKE A CLOSE LOOK

If you’re a parent, you’ve probably had this experience. You give your child a minimally difficult job – cleaning his room, say. After a few minutes, he claims to be finished, but when you examine his work, he’s clearly put forth the absolute minimal level of effort and the room looks more or less as they did before.

“I’m done,” he says. “Can I go out and play now?”

That, in essence, is how the South Carolina General Assembly attempted to treat the issue of school choice in 2012. It’s widely acknowledged – by people in both parties, by people of disparate political ideologies, and even by a tiny minority within the public school establishment – that the state’s public school system needs a greater degree of choice and competition. In sports, in business, in scholarship, in journalism, virtually everyone agrees that competition improves the final outcome. Yet in South Carolina (and, to be fair, in many other parts of the country) the belief persists that public education should be immune from the competitive dynamic.

Brink Lindsey sums up the situation perfectly in his new book Human Capitalism.

The basic structural flaw in the U.S. school system today is the absence of competition. Some 90 percent of K-12 pupils attend government-run public schools, and the vast majority of them attend schools to which they have been assigned. Most schools thus have captive customers—and correspondingly reduced incentives to serve their customers well.

“Captive customers” is exactly what South Carolina parents and students have become. And no one knows that better than those who, through no fault of their own, happen to be zoned for a failing school, or for a school that, for whatever reason, doesn’t serve their children’s needs. (For a moving expression of what it’s like to see your child trapped in a horrendous school situation, see Jeffrey Betsch’s open letter on our website.)

Even state lawmakers seem to accept the need for more competition. So what did they choose to do about it in 2012?

The first “school choice” bill was H.4894. The bill received extensive debate in the House, and its critics in the legislature and media made the kind of grand claims about it that might have led one to believe it would revolutionize the state’s public school system.

On closer examination, however, it turned out that the bill didn’t offer much of anything to parents struggling to find a better educational option. Instead of offering tax credits to qualifying families – in effect, cash rebates to be used on tuition – the bill created tax deductions for parents who move a child from one public school to another ($1,000), parents who home-school their ($2,000),  and parents who send their children to private schools ($4,000).

The problem, of course, is that deductions offer far less in the way of money, and you don’t get them unless you make enough taxable income – thus making the deductions unavailable to the very people school choice is supposed to help. (Inexplicably, the bill offered credits rather than deductions to organizations that donate to scholarship-granting charities.)

The bill passed the House by a vote of 62 to 38, but never made it to a floor vote in the Senate.

Another way to introduce competition into the school system is by relaxing enrollment  restrictions. Allow parents to send their children to the public school of their choice – maybe another school has a better band program, or the parent feels the teachers are better, or there is a better learning atmosphere – and schools (as well as districts) would begin to feel pressure to offer a better product, just as their correlatives in the business sphere do. Taxpaying parents would no longer be “captive” but free.

S.1267 would have established a “pilot program” that would supposedly test the idea out. A “pilot program” should actually do the things a full-fledged program would do, just for a limited time, whereas this pilot program limited the things the program would do to the point of insignificance. A receiving school, for instance, could begin turning away students the moment the school’s enrollment hit three percent more than its highest enrollment number in the previous ten years. And out-of-district students would be phased in at an annual rate of one percent of the school’s previous year’s average enrollment.

In other words: this “open enrollment” plan would allow hardly anyone to switch schools, virtually guaranteeing that no improvements in educational performance could be discernibly linked to the new enrollment policy.

In any case, the plan passed on second reading in Senate, but expired before reaching House.

Even if both these bills had passed, this isn’t school choice. Neither would have given hope to any significant number of parents whose children are trapped in failing schools.

To return to the metaphor: You haven’t even tried to clean your room. You barely touched the driveway. No, you may not go out and play. Not until you do the job properly.

 

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