Wednesday, April 4, 2012
Engaged parents of students attending Dorchester District 2 are right to be proud of the schools in our district. As a product of Dorchester District 2 (Summerville High School ’86), I share in that pride.
The district -among state’s highest achieving- is one of the reasons our county continues to attract new residents. That’s why it’s disturbing to hear that some have misconstrued support for broader educational options (“school choice”) in the state as an attack on that local traditional public school system.
Families in Dorchester County, and particularly in District 2, enjoy average incomes comfortably above the statewide average. The district is also home to twelve different private schools. In other words, parents in Dorchester 2 already have some of the widest “school choices” in the state. And that’s a big part of why the public schools here are exceptional. They are competitive and innovative because they have to be. The schools respond to parents because those parents have real options. That’s real educational accountability.
Unfortunately, things don’t look as good in other parts of the state. Despite the fact that low-income areas tend to have some of the highest-funded public schools, they also have some of lowest test scores and graduation rates. Those parents and grandparents are, correspondingly, far behind on school choices. While South Carolina already has over 380 private schools, many parents cannot afford the median tuition rate of $4,400 at these schools. Many see their children as “trapped” in public schools that aren’t serving those children’s specific instructional needs. Those public schools don’t have the incentives to respond and adapt that Dorchester 2 does.
But there is a way we can reduce this unequal access to different types of schools and the low public school performance that mirrors it. And we can do it at no cost to the funding of our traditional public schools here in Dorchester 2. We can support the use of tax credited scholarships to send low-income and disabled students to the school –public or private- of their parents’ choice. These state income tax credits pose no threat to state funding for public schools. That’s because public schools are funded with sales tax revenues, not income tax collections. More to the point these programs, which already support tens of thousands of low-income students in other states, keep money flowing to the public schools even if children transfer out, since most of state spending on K-12 education is not “tied” to the child. Recent studies have determined that each dollar in school choice tax credits claimed saves taxpayers $1.49 in spending. That’s money that can be reinvested in public education or other core government services.
And invest in public schools we have. According to the State Department of Education, Dorchester 2 collected over $100 million in funding from the state in 2010, the most recent year for which reporting is complete and public. Of that, about $40 million came from the “Education Finance Act,” or “EFA.” That’s the program that uses sales taxes to fund the Base Student Cost (or “BSC”). These line items often get mistaken for the entirety of state spending on K-12 education, but comprise just one portion of it. Seven years earlier, in FY 2003, it was $30m from the EFA out of a total of $67 million in revenues from the state. In other words, state spending on District 2 is large -and rising- but the money isn’t always being well publicized since a smaller share of it is coming through the Base Student Cost.
The school choice debate is not a zero-sum argument about choosing public “or” private schools; it’s really about “and.” To reduce inequality, to increase parental engagement and to raise student achievement, every parent in the state deserves to have real choices for their child’s education. That means public and charter and private and magnet and virtual and homeschool and frankly, whatever works for the specifics of that pupil’s learning needs. Most parents in Dorchester 2 have a lot of “ands” but still stick with their local public schools. That’s great, but it’s a decision parents and grandparents in other parts of South Carolina can only dream of.
Christopher J. Murphy
South Carolina House of Representatives, District 98
W. Richardson Avenue