Legislators are once again looking through the wrong end of telescope

Close up telescope site, blurry image beyond the end

In another case of legislators viewing the world through their government sustainability lens, a proposed school reform bill fails to offer school choice as an option for South Carolina citizens.

Proponents of school reform claim adding choice to the legislation would make the bill “partisan” as some factions support choice and others do not.

By excluding choice, the bill is already partisan.

If your world is the Public School System every conversation around reform is seen through that lens. A reform bill becomes a referendum on The One Best Way to run public schools. Everyone gets the same solution, right or wrong.

Should South Carolinians be allowed School Choice? Our legislature thinks not. Perhaps this is due to looking in the wrong end of the telescope. Like so many issues, legislators see what they want to see, not what they are actually looking for.

However, if we turn the telescope around and look at the reality of compulsory education, we see individual cases demonstrating School Choice is not only an affordable option for the State, but that it is already in practice in our state.

School Choice exists in South Carolina through alternative schooling practices such as home school and online education. When students apply to and are accepted to Governor’s Schools for the Arts (Greenville) or Science & Mathematics (Hartsville), they’re exercising their right to choose the education path they feel is best for them.

So why are legislators afraid to talk School Choice as a viable part of school reform?

Right now if a child needs specialized education and the parent wants the best option the family can afford, those options are limited to what their neighbors want for their own children. If the neighborhood can’t pay for as much education as this family wants, the family has no choice. The current proposed education reform would maintain those limitations.

Paying twice for education (taxes + tuition) is not a choice, it’s a penalty.

A better way would be to value the education as a per-child rate. Start with what the neighbors want to spend (say $8000 per learner per year). Then allow the family to spend more as they are willing and able, providing them with a credit in the same denomination of the neighborhood value ($8000) toward the selected school.

A value-driven plan like this would put private, tuition-based schools within reach for citizens. It would also force public schools to compete with private ones for students. Competition improves administration, product quality, and overall operations. When the neighborhood school risks losing 10 students next year due to poor performance, they face an $80,000 budget shortfall. Instead of allowing low-performing schools to be propped up by the taxes paid in wealthier neighborhoods, those schools would have the chance to compete for students by improving their performance, differentiating their experience, or offering specialized care for students. In Richland School District Two this looks like the Dual Language Immersion Program at Polo Road Elementary.

In a competitive model, the better the school, the more students would attend. Students choicing in would bring additional revenue and revenue adds resources.

A family may want a school that specializes in meeting a child’s unique needs, teaches faith or religious values, or focuses on a career track where the child has shown interest and aptitude such as engineering, medicine, liberal arts, or sports.

Again, this model is already in place in South Carolina. Magnet programs and specialization schools siphon off top performers, cognizant learners, and ambitious students every year across zoning lines. Adding the financial calculation to the equation and opening the opportunity to apply those funds toward a private alternative is a natural progression.

School choice has been introduced, adopted, and proven to increase student retention, satisfaction, and achievement. Now it’s time to evolve School Choice closer toward a competitive environment and force improved performance across state-funded schools.

Many South Carolinians are not convinced that the legislature knows more about what is best for our children than we do. We think they’re looking through the telescope at the wrong end.

When we read, in the discussion of education reform, that inclusion of School Choice in the reform bill by State Senator Tom Davis of Beaufort would make the bill “partisan” and risk its passage, we roll our eyes.

Any reform bill that does not include school choice is already partisan. 

Such an omission serves only those with a vested interest in keeping the public school enrollment at current or higher levels, to the exclusion of private schools that may serve individual family needs.

By focusing on what is good for the Public School System, rather than on what is good for students and families, lawmakers truly are looking through the wrong end of the telescope.


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