We Simply Must Get Education Right

For generations of Americans, public education gave life to the American dream, lifting all boats and giving hope and opportunity to millions of people. My entire family is a product of the public education system and it has lifted our boat higher than any of us ever dreamed.

Our proud educational history is failing in the present and threatens our ability to compete in the global economy as well as compounding a multitude of social problems. Test results show that 15-year-old students in the United States lag behind those not only in Korea, Finland and Japan, but also Slovenia and Bulgaria.

As for South Carolina, we’re at the bottom of the U.S. barrel. A disgraceful 25% of South Carolinians are functionally illiterate, lacking the reading skills to find a good job. Iran, the Congo, and Honduras have higher literacy rates than South Carolina.

South Carolina also has the highest dropout rate in the nation. Barely half of our students graduate and of those who do make it, nearly half lack the skills to get a job in a manufacturing plant. Can we really afford an “educational scrap rate” of 50%? No business could survive on that. Our economy can’t survive – much less thrive – on that. And every day that we delay focusing our will on fixing this problem, is another day we get further-and-further behind other states and the world.

With these statistics, what chance do we have to compete regionally, nationally or globally?

Our educational system is the major source of other serious problems facing South Carolina as well, such as being 1st in violent crime and 50th in job growth. Spending more money building jails and trying to attract industry which won’t come to South Carolina because of our under-educated work force is much like trying to solve the 50% scrap rate above by building bigger containers for the scrap.

Let’s get smart and solve the major source of those problems: inadequate education.

We have gone through a succession of education summits and commissions, deadlines, goals unmet and promises unfulfilled. But we’ve been nibbling around the edges with no dramatic improvement in sight for the country or for South Carolina.

Let’s start with focus. And let’s focus on reading. Let’s set a goal that NO CHILD leaves 3rd grade without being able to read (with the obvious exception of those who have development disabilities which would prevent the possibility). At the time of this writing, South Carolina is 42nd in the nation on reading performance and it shows in everything from our economy to crime.

Why 3rd grade as the line in the sand? Because on the first day of the 4th grade, learning is predicated on the ability to read. And those who don’t read, get further and further behind as each day passes.

Bottom line: no excuses, no exceptions. We have to get this right.


School Vouchers and Tax Credits

A move by some South Carolina state legislators to use taxpayer money for tax credits (formerly known as vouchers) failed in 2009. Thank goodness.

Even if this weren’t a bad idea for other reasons, the tax credit (worth $2,423) would do little to help the average South Carolinian cover tuition from a private school Private school tuition with fees in our area run about: $9,300 at Mason Prep Elementary, $15,000 at Porter Gaud, $14,250 at Charleston Day, and $20,000 at Ashley Hall. Other counties across South Carolina are more reasonably priced, but still far beyond the allowance.

And the idea (proffered by the supporters of Tax Credits) that there is enough scholarship money to make up the difference for poor students is totally ridiculous in a state where over 20% our children live in poverty (191,000 children = 191,000 scholarships).

The hardworking average South Carolinian doesn’t have a spare $2,000-13,000 PER CHILD laying around to make up the difference between the tax credit and tuition costs at her school of choice.

If South Carolina is ready to dismantle it’s public school system, we need to fight it. Public school, for those of us not born wealthy, is the source of the American Dream in this country. Public school is the only way to level the playing field.

If the public school system is broken, then let’s fix it. But, dismantling the system will do nothing BUT engender even more of a class system than we already have in South Carolina. It will assure that this state will never be able to compete in a global economy requiring better education for ALL students. It will also require John Q. Taxpayer to carry the burden for more entitlement programs, jails, police, and exodus of smart people due to a lack of economically viable industries in South Carolina — all of which are end-results of an under-educated South Carolina.

Public education: We get what we pay for The State
Guest Columnist

Sheri Few is right when she points out that “minimally adequate” is not in the state constitution (“Constitutional amendment won’t improve schools,” March 18). It is a phrase conjured up by the courts. It is sufficiently vague and ill-defined that it allows maximum flexibility and minimal accountability for those who should be held to the exact opposite standard.

It should be clear to anyone who is paying even casual attention that there are children in South Carolina who receive quite a bit more than a “minimally adequate” education; Newsweek says we have the seventh-best high school in the country.

At the same time we have the best of public schools, we also have a plethora of schools that arguably do not provide even a minimally adequate education. The data are clear. You can go to these schools and see it and hear it. Substandard, inadequate education persists for hundreds of South Carolina’s children. How does that happen?

There are many causes. One is that South Carolina has not staked itself out for its children. A constitutional standard would do that. We have not stood up as a state and said “Enough!” Our leaders have rationalized and equivocated. Our children, our business and industry, our social fabric and our state have paid the price.

Ms. Few is also right that the answer ought not to require litigation. The millions of dollars that the state already has spent in court preserving its right to do less than it should, less than it must, for its children is money wasted. The leadership of this state should not have to be forced to do what is not only the right thing, but the smart thing. History suggests, however, that without an unequivocal, loudly proclaimed standard for the education of the children of our state with the heft and impact of the state constitution, we will continue to educate some children very well while horribly under-educating many others.

I share Ms. Few’s concern for the inadequate quality of education afforded too many of South Carolina’s children. I admire her passion. I challenge her — I challenge us all — to use our passion and our influence to require the leadership of this state to forego inaction and to avoid the pathways of least resistance — such as vouchers and tax credits — and instead do the heavy lifting necessary to make any and every public school a school that reliably provides a complete and competitive education for every child.

Butzon is executive director of the Charleston Education Network in Charleston, which advocates for children and accountability to achieve excellence in public education.

South Carolina Rise (click here): Advocacy Group For Reforming Public Education

The State – Opinion – Editorial Columns – Thursday, Mar. 26, 2009

The plan to help poor kids that doesn’t help poor kids

By CINDI ROSS SCOPPE – Associate Editor

“You’re damn right I’m hurting public education, because public education is hurting our kids.”

— Sen. Robert Ford on his bill to provide tax credits to parents who send their kids to private schools

ALTHOUGH SEN. Robert Ford is the first prominent African-American in our state to support using public dollars to fund private schools, his argument is no different than any of his predecessors, black or white: He just wants to help poor kids, and black kids, who are trapped in failing public schools.

No one with a good conscience — or even a hint of a big-picture, self-preservation mentality — would not want to help those kids. Poor kids who don’t get the education they need drag down our entire state. And while our schools are doing a much better job than critics acknowledge, there are indeed too many schools that fall far short of giving children a shot at a good education. Those schools enroll almost exclusively poor children, many of whom are black.

The funny thing is, the bill Mr. Ford has introduced (S.520) won’t help those poor kids unless rich people donate money to help them. What it will do is accomplish Mr. Ford’s other goal — hurt public schools, by diverting money away from them, and by lulling people into believing there’s no reason to support them, since anyone who wants it has this new “escape” route available. (The escape-route argument is pure fantasy, but if we ever create one of these programs, many will regard it as gospel, just as many are convinced there’s no reason to spend tax money on the schools now that we have the lottery — which Mr. Ford also hawked.)

Since there’s no reason to think that more than a few of the poorest kids will be able to use Mr. Ford’s bill to “escape” to private schools, that reduced financial and political support for the public schools really will trap them — in schools that will never possibly get any better.

If this were the first time the “choice” legislation failed to match the save-the-poor-kids rhetoric, I might write it off as a drafting error. It is not the first time. Mr. Ford’s bill follows the pattern of all the bills that have come before it.

Anyone whose goal truly was to use private schools to “rescue” poor kids from “failing” schools would propose that the state pay their tuition and fees to attend a private school, likely through vouchers. They also would have the state pay for or provide transportation, because the poorest of the poor do not have the money to get their children to and from school every day, absent the school bus. Many don’t even have a car.

That’s not what Mr. Ford’s bill would do. Instead, it would give a state income tax credit to people who send their kids to a private school or home school them. This won’t accomplish the senator’s goals for several reasons:

1) Parents have to pay the tuition up front, and then claim the tax credit the next year. Poor people don’t have the money to front the tuition.

2) Even if they could somehow find the money up front, parents would be eligible to claim a tax credit for, at most, 75 percent of the amount the state spends per student in the district where they live. This varies widely from district to district, but with the rarest of exceptions, it’s not going to be enough to cover the costs of a decent school — or, in many parts of the state, any school.

3) Even if they found the up-front money and the 75 percent reimbursement covered their costs, poor people wouldn’t benefit from this bill because they don’t pay state income taxes. In fact, most South Carolinians don’t pay enough income taxes to benefit: A third of the people who file state income tax returns pay no income taxes. Half of the filers pay less than $250. Two-thirds pay less than $800.

The people who would benefit from this legislation are some — but by no means all — of the people who already can afford to send their kids to private schools or who can almost afford it. These are, for the most part, not the parents whose kids attend the worst schools in our state.

The legislation does have a convoluted provision that allows people who donate money to provide scholarships to poor kids to claim a tax credit of up to 50 percent. But there’s no guarantee that “student scholarship organizations” would even be established and, if they are, no guarantee that they would provide scholarships large enough to do recipients any good, or that the scholarships would go to the kids who need them most.

It was no surprise to see this sort of proposal coming from the suburban Republicans who introduced these bills in the past. They might honestly not realize that the families they say they want to help can’t afford to spend a single dollar to send their kids to private schools. (I’m being charitable here, not naive.)

Mr. Ford does realize this, which makes it hard to escape the conclusion that his legislation doesn’t help poor kids because the people who are bankrolling the defund-the-public-schools campaign don’t want to help poor kids. There’s a whole column on the campaign donations Mr. Ford received from those bankrollers last year, and the help they’re providing him in getting the word out this year and the “political cover” he says he’s asked them to provide, but that’s for another day.

Now that this would-be governor is the new black face for the private “choice” movement that has been desperately seeking a recognizable black face, the most important thing to understand is not his motives, but his rhetoric. Particularly when he starts peddling an agenda that sounds very different from what it is in reality — which is precisely what he’s doing.

Ms. Scoppe can be reached at or at (803) 771-8571.