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The Wit and Wisdom of SC Senator Lee Bright

on Wed, 08/07/2013 - 13:49

SC Senator Lee Bright has announced his interest in becoming US Senator Lee Bright.  I recently had the chance to speak with him about education issues.

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.

He also believes that public schools should be abolished, and that teachers should be seen and not heard.  Do you?

  • “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.” -Sen. Lee Bright
  • I believe that money is speech, and freedom of speech applies to everyone.” -Sen. Lee Bright (when asked about donations 17 times larger than legal limits from NY voucher-pusher Howard Rich)
  • “The government is providing services that ought to be coming from the private sector.” -Sen. Lee Bright, (in direct reference to public schools)
  • "Teachers should focus on teaching children and not lobbying legislators for more funding."-Sen. Lee Bright


Is it fair to present statements like these out of context?  OK, here’s the context.  I don’t think it helps much, but you be the judge:

I contacted Sen. Bright on May 20, 2013  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.  Aside from the obvious benefit to society, it would free up quite a bit of my time.

Unfortunately, folks like Sen. Bright resist those efforts at every turn.  He was one of only three legislators that upheld Gov. Haley’s veto of funding for teacher salaries when the state had a billion-dollar surplus.  He upheld that veto even though South Carolina had defaulted on promised salaries for four consecutive years.

“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 NY billionaire voucher promoter 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. 

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 don’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? 

Sen. Bright explained that "tuition tax credits" simply let the money follow the child, nothing more.

I pointed out that his generous donor Howard Rich reportedly has close ties to groups that advocate abolishing public education

I figured he'd deny it.  How wrong I was.  Lee is very much on board:

 “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.

Compulsory 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 1919, 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 in Summerton accepted its first black student in 2000.

It is an undeniable fact that many South Carolina private 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 important to note 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 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 and Brown 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.  South Carolina's long struggle against the tide of equality created a legacy of anti-government resentment that is easily exploited.

Visit Lee Bright's Facebook page and you will find numerous tributes to libertarian guru Milton Friedman. 

The following quote is from Friedman's 1995 work, Public Schools: Make Them Private:

"Vouchers are not an end in themselves; they are a means to make a transition from a government to a market system...I sense that we are on the verge of a breakthrough in one state or another, which will then sweep like wildfire through the rest of the country."

Howard Rich's 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.

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