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Economic development and school choice

Posted: April 8, 2011 2:33 p.m.
Updated: April 11, 2011 5:00 a.m.

A few weeks back, my wife showed me a newspaper article about a television ad running in North Carolina by a group called “NC Together.” In it, the narrator touts the fact that North Carolina has a world class education system that has attracted business and industry to the state and advocates for not making deep cuts to educational and other resources in order to keep the North Carolina’s business climate a competitive one. At the end of the ad, a picture of a “Welcome to South Carolina” sign is flashed and the narrator says, “There is another way, but wouldn’t we rather live in North Carolina?”  The actual ad can be seen through this link: www.zocial.tv/today/Nonprofit/8461635/together-nc-web-ad-lets-stay-north-carolina. It’s eye-opening.

In about 30 seconds, this ad summarizes why our state has struggled and continues to do so with economic development. The first thing that occurred to me after I saw this ad was if this is what our neighboring state is saying publicly, what are they saying behind closed office doors to prospective businesses considering both North and South Carolina? The ad also reminded me of the time that a member of our local business community told me that his business came to Kershaw County because the schools were superior to those in the other area under consideration, even though the other jurisdiction was offering a better tax break. 

In the same vein, I recently spent the day with other community leaders at an expo for military personnel and their families from the Third Army who are being relocated to Shaw Air Force Base in Sumter. The first question any of these families with children had was about the schools. They asked about programs, class size, facilities, quality of teaching staff and access to technology. My strong impression is that where these families decide to live (and spend money and pay taxes) during their tour at Shaw will be based first and foremost on the quality of schools. Interestingly, not once did anyone ask about tax rates. Now don’t get me wrong, I understand that reasonable taxes are an important part of the economic development picture. But quality schools are at least equally as important if our community and our state are to grow economically. I’m hoping somehow that what North Carolina seems to understand won’t get lost in the discussion here in South Carolina.

Then there’s school choice. Legislation under consideration by the General Assembly would provide a $2,500 tax credit for families whose students attend private schools. One of the main selling points of the bill that proponents point to time and again is that it will enable families to move their children from failing schools, although the bill contains no accountability measure to determine if this does actually occur over time, or if these students do move, whether or not they are actually more successful academically. I find that more than a little curious. 

Proponents also point to the fact that the legislation will save money for the state. I’ve been puzzled as to how this would actually work, but after hearing discussion by the Senate Education Committee last month, it finally became clear to me. Proponents of the bill are hoping that over time, expenses for education in the state will transfer from public to private schools, which have traditionally paid teachers and other employees less, and with fewer or no benefits, and not served students with serious special needs. Looks something like the educational version of outsourcing American jobs overseas to where labor costs are lower. This causes me great concerns in the long term about being able to attract the people we want to our profession.  

I don’t have a problem in the world with competing on a level playing field with our colleagues in private schools. But this legislation is not a level playing field. There is no provision for similar accountability for private schools taking public money to what there is for public schools. In fact, under this proposed legislation, private schools get to choose their own accountability measures. If only this were the case for the rest of us. There is also no requirement for private schools to take all students who come to their doors -- regardless of need or cost to provide services -- as public schools are required to do. Finally, the legislation will in the immediate future take money from public education at a time when S.C. public schools have already absorbed over $750 million in state cuts. It seems to me to be like drilling holes in one end of the boat while you’re bailing water at the other end. 

The folks advocating for this legislation at the General Assembly are very well-funded. I was somewhat overwhelmed by the number of high-paid professional lobbyists and Washington, D.C., Beltway types at the hearing I attended. I kept asking myself where the money for all of this was coming from. This certainly wasn’t a grassroots democracy.

I’m always pleased to talk with community members about this topic or anything else concerning 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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