Reigniting S.C.'s School Choice Debate 

Robert Ford's proposal strikes up fresh controversy

The black community has a healthy dose of skepticism of public schools, and rightly so β€” the struggle to bring equality to minority students only began with desegregation. Even now, school district decisions are met in some communities with presumptions that race played a role.

But African Americans are even more skeptical of the effort to put public money into private schools. A lot of that has to do with the guys who have pressed relentlessly for tax credits for private schools (and proposed vouchers before that): Almost all of them have been white. So when a long-serving black legislator, one who stood on the picket lines in the heat of the civil rights movement, throws his hands up and signs off on tax credits, it raises a few eyebrows in the black community β€” and red flags among public school supporters.

With the introduction of a broad private school choice bill last month, Sen. Robert Ford (D-Charleston) made it clear that he was fed up with failing public schools trudging along ever-so-slowly toward something resembling success. Ford's new position isn't a game-changer; most of the Legislative Black Caucus has come out forcefully against Ford's school choice bill. But he's energized the argument for the public funding of private schools and awoken the sleeping opposition.

Ford's bill goes much further than just tax credits for private school education. There are low-income scholarships, home school tax credits, and mandates that money follow students when they transfer between public schools β€” all proposals that would be contentious fights individually.

click to enlarge _robert-ford1.jpg

Robert Ford Leads the Minority's Minority

We'll give Sen. Robert Ford one thing: He is his own man. The Charleston Democrat is more progressive than just about any of his Democratic contemporaries in the Statehouse on gay rights issues. At the same time, he supports conservative viewpoints on off-shore drilling, Confederate holidays, and most recently school choice.

Last week, more than 50 community leaders, pastors, and parents held a press conference to voice their opposition to Ford's proposal.

"Let us make one thing clear," said Rep. David Mack (D-Charleston). "One cannot support vouchers and tax credits and be a supporter for public schools. Funds are more limited now than they've ever been."

Several of the speakers talked of protecting public schools from losing students or resources, but others spent their time venting at Ford.

"He's forgotten how he got where he is," said Rev. John Paul Brown. "We trusted him. We did not look for him to turn on us."

 Other Parts of the Bill

Backpacking

The term refers to the proposal that money budgeted per student would go with them when students transfer between public schools. Backpacking has been resisted in the past because different schools require different resources depending on various factors, including the need for more study aids and incentives for quality teachers, particularly in rural schools.

Home School Aid

Home school parents would get up to $1,000 per student for "instruction- related expenditures."

Oversight

Data from some other states suggests that this will, in fact, leave public schools in better shape than before. But public school supporters aren't convinced. That's likely one reason the bill includes a yard stick to measure progress. The state will provide an annual report laying out the fiscal implications of the bill on public school enrollment and state and local funding.

How Much Would I Get?

If the bill is approved, the tax credit for parents will be based on how much the district receives. For Charleston County, that means:

$3,600

For the parent of a special needs student.

$2,700

For the parent of a child zoned for a failing school.

$1,800

For all other parents.

Sources: South Carolina Budget and Control Board; www.scstatehouse.net

Some Private School Rates

Ashley Hall
$14,954 to $17,993

Cathedral Academy
$3,850 to $5,880

Northwood Academy
$2,682 to $5,836

Palmetto Christian Academy
$4,000 to $6,750

Porter-Gaud School
$15,180 to $17,480

St. John's Catholic School
$7680 (+$2,250 for a learning disability)

St. Paul's Academy
$4,950 to $6,350

Trident Academy
$23,740 to $23,900

University School of the Lowcountry
$8,500

Former School Board Chairman Hillery Douglas suggested the community "buy back Sen. Ford" from the tax credit supporters who have contributed to his campaign coffers.

The Rev. Joseph A. Darby, vice president of the local NAACP chapter, said he was grateful to Ford for galvanizing a community that had grown complacent as various tax credit proposals stalled in the Statehouse year after year.

"He's brought us together," Darby said. "Across lines of community, race, class, and agenda, so we can stand with one voice and say that we do not support Sen. Ford and his quest to strengthen private schools."

The NAACP is encouraging Ford to call a public meeting and ask community members what they think of the tax credit proposal.

"Talk to the people so that those citizens united here for public education can also educate you," Darby said.

Unfortunately, educating anyone on the complexities of this bill would take a teacher's arsenal: a large white board and a lot of patience.

 The Tax Credit Formerly Known As a Voucher

Tax credit supporters don't like the "V"-word. Private school vouchers were an early fight for Gov. Mark Sanford that largely ended in 2005 with angry picketing outside the Statehouse and a defeat in legislative chambers that sent supporters looking for another, more palatable direction.

The hesitation in Columbia proved wise. Vouchers in some other states haven't survived court challenges β€” but tax credits have.

For some people there's no difference. After all, it is another way to do the same thing: Using state money to pay for a private school education.

But there's an important extra step. Vouchers direct state tax dollars to private school tuition. Tax credits empower parents or donors, not the government, to determine whether to support private schools instead of the state.

The amount of the tax credit depends on circumstances rather than need. Special needs students or those from failing schools get more than others. It's also based on the Education Finance Act, the state's horribly antiquated funding formula for schools that uses property values to determine state aid. Coastal counties with valuable homes get little under that equation compared to poor, rural districts that need more help.

By using the EFA formula, Charleston's parents are already at a disadvantage. If a child transfers to a private school from a failing Charleston school, the parents would receive about $2,700. But a parent from neighboring Colleton County would get more than $3,800.

Supporters argue there's no other equitable way to do it until the state's formula changes. Coastal legislators have been griping about the formula for years, but they haven't been able to convince their counterparts from rural districts who are worried they'll lose state dollars under an updated model.

Tax credits are typically used as an incentive. For parents who are just short of the money they need to send their kids to private school, this tax credit would do just that. But it will also provide tax relief for private school parents who didn't need the incentive. Supporters argue those parents may need the incentives if they're hit with hard times and are forced to send their children back to public schools.

 Where's the Love for Public Schools?

The criticism that has continued to shadow the private school effort β€” from vouchers to tax credits β€” has been how such initiatives might impact public schools. Tax credit supporters expend a lot of energy (and a lot of numbers) laying out how, in a roundabout way, the tax credits and the scholarships will benefit public schools. But it's a leap of faith that public school advocates have a difficult time making. Their trepidation is reinforced by the fact that there is nothing in Ford's bill that explicitly supports public schools.

"There will be no additional money put into the education pot in South Carolina," says Charleston County School District Superintendent Nancy McGinley. "This plan would essentially take money away from hundreds of thousands of children being served by public schools."

The argument from tax credit advocates is that there will be fewer students using district resources β€” and that would be a good thing. Here's how their math works: A parent zoned for Burke High School sends their child to a private school, receiving a $2,700 tax credit. The average cost per Burke student from local, state, and federal sources is nearly $12,100. The state, and likely the district, has lost $2,700, but should find savings from having one less student. Multiply and start watching the money roll in. Former S.C. Revenue Director Bernard Maybank released a study last week suggesting taxpayers could save $5.4 million in the first year.

The problem is that fewer students means schools receive less money from some state and federal programs. And a county-wide per-student cost is an average. The students who would most likely benefit from a tax credit β€” the ones with upwardly mobile, engaged parents β€” cost the district less to educate than low-income, high-risk students. For example, students at suburban Wando High School cost $6,800 compared to Burke's $12,100 average.

The second argument in favor of tax credits is competition. Some people reason that public schools haven't made strides because the people in charge of educating students just aren't scared enough. But if you could bring in a private school that can provide a better education, it would spur public school teachers and parents to make public school equally or more attractive.

That argument has a pretty good leg to stand on. District and state education officials have realized they need an alternative to private schools that doesn't limit parents to the attendance zone they're stuck with. In Charleston, new magnet programs are now being offered to students countywide. This kind of innovation has come after years of debate and quite likely found success, at least in part, as a result of the pressure from voucher and tax credit advocates.

"The very discussion of school choice has affected change in public schools," says Neil Mellen, communications director for tax credit advocates at South Carolinians for Responsible Government.

Ford may have reached his breaking point, but McGinley is emphatic that now is not the time to give up on public schools, particularly with Charleston seeing progress in graduation rates, state rankings, and proficiency tests.

"We need people to invest β€” not divest β€” in the system, because it's working," she says.

 Creating a New Nonprofit Industry

Under Ford's bill, parents wouldn't be the only ones who can put their tax dollars toward private school educations. Businesses and individuals would be able to put up to 50 percent of their state tax burden (up to $50,000) toward nonprofit scholarship programs. Those groups would provide aid toward private school tuitions for parents making up to 200 percent over the state's poverty level β€” meaning those making $41,000 or less.

Like the tax credit, the scholarships are only expected to pay for a portion of private school tuition β€” enough to get some parents over the hump. Parents without the resources to fill in the tuition gap would be stuck with their public school.

The bill also establishes a cap of $25 million for the scholarship program, potentially putting a cap on how many students these scholarships can support. If every student got, say, $2,500 in aid, that would only support 10,000 students β€” out of more than 690,000 in the public school system.

The important part is that there will be some kids with opportunities that don't currently exist, says Mellen with South Carolinians for Responsible Government.

"If it only goes to help a few kids and not help the others," he says, "do we say we don't want to go forward with it because only some will be helped?"

Other states first established maximum limits and then grew them in later years based on demand. But programs have been on the chopping block in the last few weeks as a way to address state funding shortfalls. Rhode Island eliminated its tax credit for scholarships last month for a whole two days before the governor buckled and restored the deal. A similar program in Washington, D.C., is still under fire by Congress.

The most recent scholarship program, in Georgia, has run into its own kind of trouble. Established last year, there was only $6.5 million in contributions β€” far from the $50 million ceiling the state allowed. The legislature recently increased the available tax credit to 75 percent in an attempt to spur more donations.

There is also the question of whether private schools can support these programs. Religious studies shouldn't be impacted β€” the bill only prohibits racial discrimination. But it also requires that private schools make enrollment decisions "without regard to the student's past academic history."

Students shouldn't be turned away because they come from a failing school, says Edward Earwood, president of the South Carolina Association of Christian Schools. And, in fact, some of these students have excelled. But he says it's naive to think that a student's learning ability won't be a factor.

"I can't put a child in the fifth grade if he works on a second grade level," he says.


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