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Where’s the truth?

Posted: January 13, 2012 4:38 p.m.
Updated: January 16, 2012 5:00 a.m.

Over the Christmas break, I spent a couple hours cleaning up my office and sorting through all the stuff I’ve accumulated since the summer. One of the folders I found contained a report from an organization called the South Carolinians for Responsible Government (SCRG). This group is headquartered in Columbia and is reportedly funded in large part by out-of-state money. The SCRG is best known for its advocacy for school choice/tax credit legislation. These folks have a wealth of resources. At a hearing I attended during last year’s General Assembly, the SCRG had three staff members, an additional highly paid lobbyist and a consultant from the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C., in attendance. It was quite the “entourage.” The SCRG’s main tactic is to spread misinformation about public education in South Carolina to justify its position on school choice/tax credits.   

Imagine my surprise when I read that according to the SCRG, public schools in South Carolina are spending more per student than they did three years ago. You heard me right. Bless their hearts, but what planet have these people been living on? Let’s talk about reality. A report I recently heard from a staff member of the Senate Finance Committee indicated that our state’s General Fund appropriation for education had dropped approximately 25 percent since 2008. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a national non-partisan organization, recently compared changes in state funding between 2008 and now, and found that South Carolina is one of three states that had reduced per student funding by more than 20 percent. Here in Kershaw County, we’ve absorbed as much as 17 percent in budget cuts and our current spending is $9 million less than it was three years ago. 

Of course, in making such a dubious assertion, the number crunchers over at the SCRG resort to some pretty creative math. They use revenues projected by the Budget and Control Board versus actual audited expenditures. They calculate per pupil spending by including funds that are not allocated to school districts on a per-student basis such as capital and debt service funds and federal funds for areas like Special Education.  (Funds for Special Education can’t be used for other purposes.) Cost-neutral transfers of funds from one budget line to another are counted as expenditures. (In other words, a transfer of money from one account at a school to another is counted as an expenditure.) Further, the SCRG doesn’t use actual enrollment figures. Four-year-olds who attend public schools, students at the two Governor’s Schools and students served by the Department of Juvenile Justice and the Department of Corrections are not included. Interestingly, though probably not surprisingly, the SCRG does include expenditures for these students its cost calculations while not counting them in enrollment.

The SCRG has turned this kind of statistical distortion into an art form. Of course, these are the same folks who keep repeating like some kind of mantra that only 44 cents of each dollar spent on public education gets to the classroom. What they don’t tell you is that this figure doesn’t count things like guidance counselors, classroom assistants, media specialists, media and instructional materials, supplies, utilities, maintenance and custodial services, principals, assistant principals, school office clerical staff, nurses, extracurricular activities, food service and other areas that any reasonable person would expect to see funded in any school.

The SCRG seems to be trying to make a case that school choice/tax credits would not have a negative impact on public school funding because public schools already have so much money. This simply flies in the face of reality for those of us who actually work in the real world. The state’s own Board of Economic Advisors has estimated that the SCRG’s proposal would drain the state’s general fund by $800 million and ultimately reduce funding for public education by $1 billion. That’s bad enough. But what is most troubling about the whole school choice/tax credit movement is the disingenuous way in which it has been packaged by the SCRG and groups like it and the almost nonexistent accountability tied to the whole scheme. 

The SCRG touts school choice/tax credits as a way to help economically disadvantaged students to leave failing schools. However, any proposed legislation the SCRG has written for its allies in the General Assembly has never included any mechanism to track how many economically disadvantaged students would actually be served. Further, under the SCRG’s proposed legislation, private schools receiving public funding would not be held to anywhere near the strict accountability measures as are public schools. No School Report Cards, no PASS tests and possibly lower graduation requirements. In fact, these schools can pick their own tests. Can anyone explain this obvious aversion of accountability? I would also point out that public schools serve everyone and do not exercise the selectivity that private schools can. Public school educators wouldn’t have it any other way. While we also have absolutely no problem with competing with private schools, we think it should be done on a level playing field. 

Stay tuned during the upcoming General Assembly session. The SCRG and its supporters will undoubtedly keep bringing considerable resources and distorted statistics to promote their agenda. Watch this one closely. Does it even make sense for public money to be supporting private schools in light of almost $800 million in cuts to public schools over the past three years? 

It all reminds me of a well-known commercial from years gone by which asked, “Where’s the beef?” In a similar nature, I’d like to ask SCRG, “Where’s the truth?” 

I’m always pleased to talk with community members about our schools. My direct dial phone number is 425-8916 and my email is frank.morgan@kcsdschools.net. Citizens can also contact me through the “Ask the Super” link on the homepage of the district Website. I also invite folks to read my “blog” and listen to the podcast I record after each school board meeting with meeting highlights. Both of these, and a whole lot more, can be accessed at www.kershaw.k12.sc.us.

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