School Choice: Why Speculate?
John Adams wasn’t thinking of school choice when he famously stated, “Facts are stubborn things,” but his insight can bring clarity to a debate that remains clouded with misleading claims. As state lawmakers consider school choice legislation, it is crucial that stubborn facts determine the decisions they make. Any policy dealing with how children are educated in South Carolina deserves nothing less.
Consider the commonly touted myth that “school choice won’t help low-income families.” This statement is usually explained by pointing out that poor families simply don’t have enough income to benefit from an income tax credit or tax deduction. One pundit recently penned an attack on current school choice legislation based totally around this groundless claim. A thorough reading of House Bill 4894 shows he was wrong.
The bill primarily supports low-income students and students with special educational needs. It extends income tax credits to those who fund private scholarships for those students. It is based on existing programs in other states, with excellent track records. While H. 4894 also grants modest tax deductions to independent school and homeschool families, the lion’s share of the plan targets support for poor and disabled children. They are eligible for scholarships of up to $5,000 and $10,000 respectively. Considering that the median tuition for private schools in South Carolina is about $4,400, this bill represents very significant help for struggling families. Scholarships for low-income students are funded by contributions from individuals and businesses to non-profit entities called Student Scholarship Organizations (SGO).
Best of all, we don’t have to speculate about whether this means of school choice is a sound one. We have the luxury of looking at the facts from ongoing school choice programs in Florida, Arizona and Pennsylvania. Right now, tuition scholarships from Student Scholarship Organizations allow tens of thousands of low-income children in these states to attend the private school of their choice. In Florida alone, over 37,000 children are taking advantage of tuition scholarships from Scholarship Granting Organizations. I doubt those children would agree that school choice “doesn’t help the poor.” Newer programs in neighboring Georgia and North Carolina are further building upon these successes. No where are these programs "siphoning" resources from the traditional public schools.
School choice proponents in South Carolina can point to school choice’s very measurable benefits for families in other states, and ask a very reasonable question: “Why not here?” People of influence and affluence in the Palmetto State already have educational choices. They can either pay for private school tuition, or move to an area where they feel public schools will meet the needs of their children. Low-income families want the same opportunity to engage in the education of their children, and school choice is a proven, cost-saving way of providing that.
In contrast to the speculation of school choice opponents, the “stubborn” facts clearly support school choice as a necessary step toward moving our state education system forward. School choice is affordable, it makes schools accountable, and is proven – already helping thousands of students and families in other states.