The beginning of the new session of the South Carolina General Assembly will undoubtedly bring renewed efforts to pass school voucher legislation. Like fire ant hills in the summer, some new version of voucher legislation pops up every year in Columbia. Proponents package it differently from year to year, but the basic premise when you strip away the slick marketing is that public funds would be used to support private schools.
The “Sugar Daddy” of vouchers is a New York real estate magnate named Howard Rich who uses his vast fortune to promote a personal vision of a libertarian utopia. Mr. Rich has funneled millions of dollars into South Carolina through the numerous campaign finance loopholes available under South Carolina law. (A report called “Buying South Carolina” documents how he does this. Here’s the link: http://buyingsc.blogspot.com.)
Other than a large number of politicians, the chief beneficiary of Mr. Rich’s largesse is an organization ironically named the “South Carolinians for Responsible Government” (SCRG). The SCRG is housed in a swank office building in downtown Columbia, and during the General Assembly, its highly-paid staff and consultants circle the State Capitol like buzzards at a carcass. (I’d love to see the expense account these guys run up during a session.) It’s hard to tell how much money Mr. Rich has given to the SCRG. Transparency is a not one of the SCRG’s virtues, and Mr. Rich hides contributions better than Houdini could escape a strait jacket; however, it is very conservatively estimated that Mr. Rich funded the SCRG to the tune of almost $7 million between 2005 and 2009.
The SCRG’s obsession is vouchers. The main argument for vouchers espoused by the SCRG and its minions is that vouchers would enable economically disadvantaged students to escape failing schools. The proposed legislation, however, includes no mechanism to track whether or not this actually occurs in any meaningful way. In a recent post on the SCRG’s voucher website, “The Voice for School Choice,” the SCRG was already rationalizing about why vouchers may not actually serve all that many economically disadvantaged students.
But what is truly disconcerting about voucher legislation is the way in which it seeks to divert public funds to private schools that would not have come close to meeting the high standards of accessibility, transparency and accountability that public schools must meet. The chart below sums it up:
Public Schools Private Schools
PASS Test Required YES NO
Consistent Graduation Requirements YES NO
Value-Added Teacher/Principal Evaluation YES NO
Freedom of Information Act Compliance YES NO
End Of Course Test Required YES NO
HSAP Test Required YES NO
State Accreditation Requirements YES NO
Schools Graded YES NO
“Highly Qualified” Staff YES NO
Academic Results Published YES NO
Online Financial Transparency YES NO
Required to Serve Special Needs Students YES NO
Selective Admission NO YES
I have no problem with competing with private schools. But under voucher legislation, the field would be anything but even. Aside from the fact that private schools can choose their students and exclude them at will, voucher legislation would not require them to do anywhere near the level of accountability testing that public schools are mandated to do. The legislation would require private schools to administer a test of their own choosing without any external oversight to guarantee that testing is administered properly or that all students are tested, oversight public schools are subject to. You’ve got to wonder why voucher proponents are so determined to sidestep the kind of serious, structured accountability required of public schools. You’ve also got to wonder why they are so intent on avoiding apples-to-apples comparisons with public schools.
Vouchers are a scam being hawked in South Carolina by well-funded hucksters from outside the state. Perhaps if voucher proponents would get more serious about legitimate public accountability, they might be more credible. And I haven’t even mentioned compliance with the Freedom of Information Act and online financial transparency. Voucher legislation is silent on these areas.
While public schools are rightfully required to be accessible, accountable and transparent, voucher proponents want us to believe that it would be just fine for private schools benefitting from public funds to be on a loophole-ridden honor system. What a deal. I’d note that a voucher plan in Louisiana was just struck down by the courts. Maybe they’re on to something down in the Bayou.
I’m always pleased to talk with community members about our schools. My direct dial phone number is 425-8916 and my email is email@example.com. 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.