A lunch discussion Monday about school vouchers, featuring conservative syndicated columnist Star Parker, began with assurances that the goal of the gathering was not to bash public schools.

“It’s not to knock public education, but there are better ways, better avenues,” said state Rep. Samuel Rivers Jr., a Berkeley County Republican whose campaign fund paid for the event. Rivers and Parker are part of a small but influential black conservative movement.

Parker is not known for speaking kindly about public schools. In a column Parker distributed at the meeting, she said that for black children, most public schools are dangerous “plantations” where black children are “incarcerated.”

In another column, published in April, Parker said children are “captive to left-wing brainwashing” in public schools that have been purged of traditional religious values.

The solution she advocates is school vouchers — taxpayer funds that would allow parents to pay some or possibly all of the tuition at a private school. Ideally, said Parker, parents would put their children in a local church-run school.

“The question is, who gets to decide who educates our children,” said Parker, who has been appearing at Charleston-area conservative events including Saturday’s “Bridging the Gap” gathering.

Unfortunately, said GOP First District Chairman Jim Davis, the voucher concept is seen as a partisan issue.

“Education should be education, regardless of the other stuff,” Davis said at the lunch at Trident Technical College.

Parker warned that “the left is out there” trying to prevent school-voucher plans, aided, she said, by the NAACP, the American Civil Liberties Union, teachers and school administrators. In the column she handed out, Parker described the NAACP as “a stalwart defender of the public school system that traps kids in poverty.”

Charleston NAACP President Dot Scott, who wasn’t invited to the lunch, said she respects the opinion of those who support vouchers, but said she’s confident that the NAACP is correct on that issue.

“We are strong proponents of a public education where every child has access,” Scott said. “If (Parker) ever wants to have that conversation, we would welcome that conversation with her.”

Scott said vouchers are typically too small to cover tuition at a private school, and those schools don’t have to accept students who want to attend.

On one point, Scott and Parker appear to agree.

“For the most part public education in South Carolina is just terrible,” Scott said.

Parker said vouchers would allow parents to pull their kids out of failing public schools. Public schools, in response, would be forced to compete.

“When you have a voucher system, public schools get better,” Parker said.

She said the only way to get values back into education is to either put religion back in public schools, or get the kids into church-run schools, with the help of vouchers.

In South Carolina, some form of school choice legislation has been introduced every year for more than a decade. A limited tax credit for donations that create private school scholarships was approved this year — essentially turning tax money into private school scholarships — but the scholarships are limited to special-needs students.

According to Stateline, that legislation made South Carolina one of 13 states that created or expanded tuition tax credits, private school scholarships or traditional vouchers in 2013.

Reach David Slade at 937-5552 or Twitter @DSladeNews.