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Vouchers & Tax Credits SHARPLY LIMITED

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With SC public schools funded $600 Million below what state law requires, siphoning off tax dollars for private schools is absolutely inappropriate.

A majority of the SC Senate still understands that at a basic level.  The House is a different story (suggested title: The Hunger Games).  That’s not to say there weren’t some problems.  We had two campaigns on this issue.  One went our way and the other didn’t.  Hey, it’s an email list, not a nuclear weapon.

Our first campaign targeted selected legislators to reject a budget amendment from Sen. Larry Grooms that would have given a tax credit to every parent with a child in private school.  Grooms’ measure would’ve cost the state $39 million.

This campaign got a strong response and the measure was defeated.  We were by no means the only players.  Voucher measures are opposed by every major education group in SC, with good reason (see below). 

 

A small group of libertarian Senators, led by Lee Bright and Kevin Bryant, did manage to extort a very limited measure out of mainstream Republican leadership by threatening to derail the budget process if their demands were not met.  (Scroll down for some insight on Lee Bright's interest in this topic).

This time, our efforts came up short.  The measure passed.  It provides a one-year $8 million tax credit of up to$10,000 to people who donate to scholarship funds for special-needs students in private schools.  They also managed to insert a provision that sets aside 35% of the state’s expanded Pre-K spending for students in private programs (the House wanted 85%).

There is a great deal of concern that these limited temporary measures will open the floodgates for full-on voucher measures later.  We can take comfort in the fact that the Senate reaffirmed their opposition to such measures when they voted down the Grooms amendment.  In addition, next year’s Senate will be a more favorable environment.

The good news is in Senate District 42.  Sen. Ford was shamed out of office for his campaign spending habits.  I’m much more concerned about his campaign funding habits.  For years, Ford has taken large donations, many times the legal limit, from voucher-supporter Howard Rich (see below).  His legislative record reflects the fact that this money was well spent (if not always legally spent).

With Ford gone, his replacement will almost certainly be a voucher opponent.  That’s one less vote going the wrong way.

 

Every year, you hear about the need to get on the phone and oppose vouchers.  Why does this keep coming up?

Vouchers and tuition tax credits that would siphon tax revenues out of public schools are deeply unpopular.   South Carolinians say they prefer expanded public school choice policies to tuition tax credits, by a 2-to 1 margin.  If the public doesn't like vouchers & tax credits, why do they keep coming back?

The answer involves a NY billionaire named Howard Rich.  He has been the largest single donor to SC candidates in the last few elections, using shell corporations to donate as much as 31 times the legal limit.  See who took his money  (Larry Grooms, for example). 

I've got nothing against NY.  In fact I was raised there.  But unlike Howard Rich, I actually live in SC now.  What's his interest in pushing vouchers here?  Rich has strong ties to a group called the Alliance for the Separation of School and State.  Several leaders of his organizations have taken their public pledge to favor, "ending government involvement in education."

One such leader (and former member of the SC Education Oversight Committee) was quoted as saying, "Public education is welfare."

Sound crazy? 

Sen. Lee Bright told me personally that he supports vouchers and tax credits because he wants to see education privatized.

 

I contacted Sen. Bright in reference to the following statement he made on the floor of the Senate:

"Teachers should focus on teaching children and not lobbying legislators for more funding."

Obviously, I agree.  There should be no need for teachers to lobby legislators for more funding.  The legislature should do their duty under the SC Constitution and provide it without being hounded.  Unfortunately, folks like Sen. Bright resist those efforts at every turn.

“I really should have said ‘educators’, not ‘teachers’,” Sen. Bright explained sheepishly.  He explained to me that some teachers are OK, but the ones he calls “educators” are lobbying against vouchers and driving out-of-control school spending.  He explained that since we’re government employees, we shouldn’t have a say in education policy.

I pointed out that not all of us can count on Howard Rich to send us $17,000 in donations from 17 phony corporations that produce and sell nothing.  I reminded him that the legal limit is $1,000 and that his harvest from Rich was 17 times that.

His response? 

“I believe that money is speech, and freedom of speech applies to everyone.” 

Except teachers, apparently.  Sorry, I meant “educators”.

He also bragged that Rich gave him much more in 2008...$80,000.  I thought I must have heard him wrong, so I did some research.  I was only able to document $50,000 in contributions.  Rich reportedly has close ties to groups that advocate abolishing public education.

OK, Lee.  Let’s get down to brass tacks:

“Teachers calling their legislators isn’t illegal.  It’s protected.  But you’re saying it’s dirty pool.  Aren’t you circumventing the intent of the law by accepting those donations?  Isn’t that dirty pool?”

“I, uh, um, well…I guess maybe so, but the media, you know TV ads, they’re very expensive.” 

He reiterated his right to free speech (paid for by out-of-state shell corporations).

Unfortunately, nobody has explained to Lee that he also has the right to remain silent.  He expanded on his original point about school spending:

“We’ve got these 28 year old grandmothers, and those kids are costing us $17,000 a year down in Allendale.”

“All it leads to is more spending in the penal and welfare systems, and turning out these kids that can’t read.”

I was so stunned, I didn’t even think to ask where he got his figures on school spending or median age of grandmothers.  I didn’t even know why he chose to pick on Allendale.  It’s nowhere near his Spartanburg district.  His comments were so cryptic that I later felt the need to do some research in order to decipher them. 

The SC Dept of Education lists Allendale’s per-pupil spending as $13,104, roughly $4,000 higher than state average, but considerably lower than Lee’s estimate.  I could not find a statistic on grandmothers.

I did learn that Allendale County has a 40% poverty rate.  Per capita income is $13,684.  For those, like the Senator, who are aggressively keeping score, that’s $3,316 less than Lee Bright got from Howard Rich last year.  If someone has to get $17,000, I’ll take “those kids” over Lee Bright, every day of the week.

I did not know that this rural community has only 25 people per square mile.  I do know some things about school funding and basic division.  I know that operating schools to serve small populations spread over long distances costs much more on a per-pupil basis

Unless you go back to the one-room schoolhouse, facility costs and personnel needs are similar to a larger community’s, with fewer students to spread the cost over.  Transportation costs are much higher when kids come from all over the county to a single high school, a single middle school, and two elementary schools.

I know that running a school lunch program costs more when 93% of your students can’t afford to pay for it.  I also know that child poverty is the single best predictor of academic struggle.

I did not know that Allendale’s population is 71% African-American.  Would that be news to Lee Bright?  I do know that your academic needs are greater and your outcomes are less likely to be optimal if opportunity has been systematically denied to your community for centuries.

I didn’t know anything about Allendale County.  That’s why I wouldn’t have chosen to shoot my mouth off about it and disparage its residents and their schools.

Because I stopped and did some research, I now know that Allendale schools have shown strong academic growth over the last few years.  They now have a higher pass rate on the high school exit exam than most schools that serve students with similar challenges…87.5%. 

I also know that their teachers make $6,000 less than the South Carolina average, and that the district has been forced to bring in teachers from developing countries on temporary visas to fill the gaps.  If this is what “out-of-control spending” looks like, I’d hate to see Lee Bright’s vision of appropriate funding.  Perhaps it would be paid in South Carolina currency, as Bright introduced legislation to establish.  One more way to cut free from the shackles of the federal government, you see.  

 

Where do vouchers fit in?  I’ll let Lee explain:

 “I’m against state control of services.  The government is providing services that ought to be coming from the private sector.”

Yes, he was talking directly about public schools. Sen. Lee Bright: against.

Public education has long been accepted as one of the core functions of government throughout the developed world.  It was late coming to South Carolina, but in 1922, we finally got there.

It is widely understood that societies prosper when all citizens have the opportunity to participate effectively in the economy, their communities, and the democratic process.

That’s why it’s the largest expenditure in our state budget. 

That really bugs libertarians like Howard Rich and Lee Bright.  They equate taxation with theft.

To make their case that public schools should be dismantled, they perpetuate the lie that public schools are failing.  It isn’t true in South Carolina, or in the nation as a whole.

As for the private sector, the last time I checked, nobody had figured out how to educate all children and cut a profit at a lower price than the public schools.  As Lee Bright points out, some of “those kids” are expensive to educate.  Of course, that only matters if educating all children is actually your goal.  What other goals might one have?

One last footnote on Allendale County might be instructive: 26% of the population is white.  Yet the percentage of white students in public school is too small to be reported on the district’s report card.  It would seem that most white families in Allendale choose to send their children somewhere else.  It’s a pattern that repeats in many South Carolina communities.

Families choose private education for any number of reasons besides racial politics.  Many of our state’s private schools deliver a wonderful educational experience and make profound efforts to be inclusive.  Others have made slow progress.  Clarendon Hall accepted its first black student in 2000.

However, it is an undeniable fact that many South Carolinaprivate schools, such as Clarendon Hall, were established in direct response to federally-mandated desegregation.

So were voucher programs.

"Of only one thing can we be certain. South Carolina will not now, nor for some years to come, mix white and colored children in our schools. ...If that is not possible, reluctantly we will abandon the public school system."

– SC Gov. Jimmy Byrnes, 1951

There were 16 private schools in South Carolina in 1956.  By 1975, there were over 200, enrolling a higher percentage of students in private schools than any other Southern state.  The number of private schools has since doubled.

Voucher programs have a long history as instruments by which to resegregate schools.  The first “tuition tax-credit” programs in South Carolina were enacted in 1963, the first year of court-ordered integration.  They offer taxpayers an escape from the financial burden of supporting two separate and unequal school systems, allowing them to support only the one they patronize. 

It is also worth noting that voucher programs do not give disadvantaged students greater access to private schools.  The vouchers don’t cover tuition at most private schools, and most families have no way to make up the difference.  What they primarily do is subsidize families that are already in private schools.  Which families are those, for the most part?

In this context, “school choice” as a rallying cry has a certain rhetorical equivalency to “states’ rights”…the origin point for the geographically distinct interest in what is today referred to as “limited government”.  These terms have the potential to obscure as much as they reveal about people’s intentions. 

When we look at what kinds of “choices” and “rights” people are most fervently concerned about, and what types of government activities they wish to “limit”, the picture becomes clearer.  In the birthplace of secession andBrown vs. the Board of Ed, those terms take on troubling meanings

There’s a reason why South Carolina was the last state in the nation to establish universal public education and the last state to integrate it.

Could there be more than just a thread of continuity between this state’s historic reluctance to educate “all students” and the current effort to defund public education and transfer tax dollars to private schools?

There’s a reason why Howard Rich has taken such an active interest in the political system of a state in which he owns no property.

His dream is that if he can buy support relatively cheaply here by electing zealots like Lee Bright (and opportunists like Robert Ford), it will become easier to privatize education elsewhere, and eventually, everywhere.

Unless we stop them.

SC Senator Lee Bright has announced his interest in becoming a US Senator.  Clearly, he holds at least one South Carolina community in contempt and resents the cost of providing an education to its children. 

That’s one too many for one of the highest offices in government. 

 

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