Ford pushes school tax credits
COLUMBIA — Sen. Robert Ford was hoarse from yelling over the crowd at the Statehouse that turned out Tuesday to see him advocate what he thinks is best for children in South Carolina schools — giving them tax dollars to transfer out.
Visit the South Carolina Legislature web site and type in bill 520 in the search box.
The Charleston Democrat, who once opposed such things, said he had a change of heart and regrets not acting sooner on behalf of students in failing public schools. Suspicions for some, though, were raised when Ford, who recently announced plans to run for governor in 2010, revealed that a brochure he mailed to 450,000 voters was paid for in part by a wealthy New York businessman known for making large campaign contributions to school-choice supporters.
Study critical of Sanford's school choice plan, published 02/08/05
Veto of school choice bill sustained, published 06/29/07
New plan for choice emerges; Senate proposal would include private schools, published 05/04/07
Ford said he would take campaign money from multimillionaire Howard Rich for his gubernatorial bid. But, for now, Ford said he was just looking toward Rich to help promote the bill he filed earlier this month to provide children with a tuition tax credit worth $2,433 for most, $4,867 for students with special needs and $3,650 for those who attend a failing school.
"When I do something, it's because I have that conviction," Ford said, insisting the bill has nothing to do with financing his campaign. "I am doing this for the children who are failing. If you are any kind of man or any kind of woman and you don't care about kids going to failing schools, then something's wrong with you as a person."
The 2009 South Carolina Education Opportunity Act would give tuition tax credits to students who transfer from one public school to another public or private school. Scholarships funded by charitable contributions also would be available for children whose parents earn up to 200 percent of the federal poverty line, which is $44,100 for a family of four.
The bill is the latest evolution in the private school choice debate that has been going on since 2004, and it is aimed at helping children leave schools that receive "below average" or "at-risk" ratings on annual report cards.
Supporters argue that competition will improve the public school system, and in the meantime children should be given every chance to receive the best education possible. Others, chief among them state Superintendent of Education Jim Rex, say that siphoning much-needed tax dollars away from public schools, not to mention many good students, is no way to improve them.
Rex said he does not see Ford's bill gaining traction, especially in a year when the state education budget has been cut by $387 million. He said choice should come from within the public school system, including bills filed Tuesday in the House and Senate to create committees to develop new educational options within two years.
Phil Noble, a Charleston businessman and president of the S.C. New Democrats, has been tracking campaign contributions Rich, the New York financier, has made in South Carolina. Noble said Ford is a good and honorable man but is on the wrong side of the school choice issue.
"It will lead to the re-segregation of our schools and lead to worse education, not better," Noble said. "Howard Rich is nothing but a carpetbagger who is trying to use our school children as lab rats in his radical social experiment."
If Ford continues his gubernatorial bid, Noble said he has no doubt that Rich would channel thousands of dollars in contributions to him.
The glossy, full-color, 8-inch by 10-inch flier that Ford said Rich and other others paid for pictures a black boy sitting on a desk with his head in his hands. It reads: "Why should his only choice be a failing school? School choice should be a right, not a privilege." On the back Ford is pictured with the quote, "If failing schools are bad for the rich, why are they good for the poor?"
Ford was a one-time opponent of using public money to help parents of private school students. Now, he said he has had a change of heart when he began investigating how the school choice works in other states.
"I don't have no regrets of taking money out of a public school," Ford said. "The money is not for that school. The money is to educate little Johnny.
"If the school's not doing its job, then we're supposed to take the money and give it to little Johnny's mama to go to any school that she wants to send him to, (to) make sure little Johnny grows up to be one of y'all one day."
Sen. Darrell Jackson, a Hopkins Democrat and a prominent members of the Legislative Black Caucus, said he does not support Ford's legislation, but he does not condemn him for pushing it.
"I think his heart's in the right place," Jackson said. "I think he genuinely cares about what is happening to poor, struggling children. I can't say that of everybody else whose always promoted this issue.
"Maybe his opinion is that this will radically shake up the argument. In the end, his proposal may not prevail, but we may get better public schools as a result of what he does."
IN THE LEGISLATURE - other action
STIMULUS MONEY: After sparring with the White House about how to use stimulus funds, South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford has ordered state agencies and local government officials to give the state details on how they use the money.
Friday's executive order told officials to provide the information and cites laws requiring them to comply. If they don't, Sanford can remove them from office.
"That is the law and that would certainly be the teeth behind it," Sanford spokesman Joel Sawyer said Tuesday.
The executive order came as Sanford ended a week of back-and-forth with the White House over his plans to spend $700 million in stimulus cash to pay down state debt, including borrowing for state education facilities and to cover the state's unemployment checks. The White House rejected Sanford's efforts, saying the money had to be spent to stimulate the economy, educate children and spare jobs.
Sanford called on legislators to find a way to pay down debt with the money anyway. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, called it "a foolish request" because there is no money to do that.
CIGARETTE TAX: Protests from convenience store operators wasn't enough to stop legislation raising the state's cigarette tax by 50 cents a pack.
Representatives from two trade groups testified Tuesday before a House panel handling House Speaker Bobby Harrell's plan to raise the tax and spend the $139 million it would raise on a new health insurance program for low-income workers.
Brad Poe of the South Carolina Association of Convenience Stores said the increase would come on top of the 62-cent increase in federal cigarette taxes that take effect in the next couple of weeks.