School Choice in South Carolina: A Short History

A LOT OF TALK. ALMOST NO RESULT.

There are essentially two strategies in diplomatic negotiations. One is to ask for more than you know you’re likely to get, then to demand a portion of it and claim you’ve “compromised” on your original demand. The other is to make very modest demands and hope they’re met in full. Neither strategy has worked for school choice advocates in South Carolina. They began around ten years ago by asking for a voucher program – that is, a program in which the state would offer scholarships to low-income students to attend the private school of their parents’ choice.

Voucher legislation never got anywhere near passing. Four years later, in 2007, they threw their weight behind a significant but much less ambitious plan dubbed “open-enrollment.” The idea behind H.3124 was to liberalize the state’s zoning restrictions and thereby encourage some level of competition among schools and districts. Parents whose children were “zoned” for failing schools (the thinking went) would be able to take action short of removing their kids from the public system altogether. That bill passed the House and Senate, but only after its opponents had neutered it. Indeed, Governor Sanford – a strong supporter of school choice – vetoed it on the grounds that the bill’s “open enrollment” policy had become so restricted as to be closed for most South Carolinians. As he pointed out in his veto letter, the bill would only have granted enrollment moves to about 3 percent of the state’s 86,900 students in failing schools. An amendment was offered to give private school scholarships to students who had been denied transfer privileges, but that amendment was easily shot down.

By 2011, school choice advocates were lowering their sights yet further. H.3407 received the most attention. That bill would have provided a tax credit to parents sending a child to private school worth half the base student cost provided to the relevant public school, or around $2,400, and a credit of up to $1,000 per student to parents who home school.

The bill would also have created a credit for taxpayers who contribute to a scholarship organization for students from low-income families. All things considered, the bill didn’t offer the full-fledged reform that school choice advocates wanted, but it wasn’t insignificant and might have helped some families zoned for failing schools to achieve something better for their children. Predictably, it was pilloried by the public education establishment for “using public money for private schools.” Of course, the money wasn’t for “the schools” but for the students – students who, in many or most cases, have no opportunity to attend a satisfactory school because the public school system had failed them.

Left out of the debate was the glaring inconsistency in the argument that public money shouldn’t go to private schools. Those who blast school choice legislation like H.3407 had rarely if ever expressed any apprehension about tax favors going to private companies like Boeing, Amazon, and countless other multimillion-dollar corporations – even though, unlike students trapped in failing schools, the state owes these major corporations no favors whatsoever.

That bill failed in the House by a vote of 60 to 59.

This year, school choice advocates have been reduced to asking for what amounts to crumbs from the master’s table. H.4894 doesn’t offer tax credits to individuals at all; it offers tax deductions. Under this bill – which passed the House on second reading by a vote of 65 to 49 and is now in the Senate Finance Committee – parents who move a child from one public school to another would be eligible to receive a $1,000 deduction; parents who home school their children would be eligible to receive a $2,000 deduction; and parents who send their children to private schools would be eligible to receive a $4,000 deduction.

It’s necessary to say “would be eligible to receive” rather than “would receive” because, of course, vast numbers of those affected would not be eligible to receive the deductions. Why? Because they don’t earn enough taxable income to claim them. So those who really need financial help in finding a better educational option for their children won’t qualify for the deductions, and those who do qualify for the deductions aren’t the ones who need financial help. As one opponent of school choice aptly put it, these tax deductions are “just gravy for families who really don’t need it.”

Other measures in the legislation would encourage school choice, at least in theory. In particular, contributions to organizations that support scholarships to low-income and special-needs children could claim a 60 percent tax credit. State economists estimate the bill would “cost” $37 million in revenue – giving some lawmakers the excuse they need to reject the plan. But bear in mind: that analysis doesn’t account for the fact that the public school system’s financial burden would diminish to the extent that parents take advantage of it, and there is no conceivable way to know how many individuals and corporations would take advantage of the scholarship deductions.

But although H.4894 passed the House by a significant (though not quite comfortable) margin, the bill’s chances in the Senate look much bleaker. Absent some miracle in the upper chamber, school choice advocates will find themselves in the familiar position of having lowered their demands and come up with nothing.

For a decade, then, opponents of school choice have blocked even modest attempts to introduce parental choice into the public school system. Meanwhile, the state’s SAT scores consistently rank at or near the worst in the nation; South Carolina has 11 of the nation’s 25 worst public schools, as well as the 3rd worst high school completion rate (66 percent) in the nation; only 42 percent of graduating students are ready for college reading, and only 35 percent are ready for college math.

At some point, if school choice advocates lower their aims enough to satisfy their opponents, they may actually pass a “school choice bill,” however negligible it might be. But an insignificant bill will by definition have insignificant results, and when a new “school choice” law produces no results, school choice will get all of the blame and none of the credit. Would that be worth it?

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