Gov. Henry McMaster recently announced his plan to use federal COVID-19 aid to create an opportunity for families to exercise their right to school choice. This would expand access to much-needed options for underrepresented, underserved families in South Carolina.
Some have tried to create doubt about this new SAFE Grants program by calling to mind the historic “white flight” from public schools. This is both short-sighted and pessimistic. One cannot deny South Carolina’s ugly history of systematic racial oppression that is still seen in economic disparities today. However, to imply that private schools were only — or even primarily — created as a way for white parents to escape desegregated schools is inaccurate and ignores the reality of South Carolina’s present education needs.
Are we to assume that religion, uniqueness of curriculum, special needs, bullying or a desire for smaller class sizes are not factors in parents’ decisions? Are we to assume that there are no communities of color who seek to create learning environments representative of their cultural ideals? Let us not forget that many of the first private schools developed across America were created for students of color as a direct response to their exclusion from traditional public education. These schools became beacons of educational excellence.
Unfortunately, many South Carolinians have a skewed perception of private education and a lack of understanding about the actual amount of funding public schools receive. As an educator, I am the first to say that I believe teachers need better pay. However, we should also turn a critical eye to how funds are being spent within our traditional school districts. If opponents of SAFE Grants feel that its $32 million price tag is a large amount of money, what about the more than $500 million S.C. public schools have received in COVID relief? That’s on top of the estimated $10.4 billion in total revenue public schools will have received for the 2019-20 fiscal year.
While there are some elite private schools that cater to a more affluent population, most private schools serve diverse middle-class and low-income families. In fact, there are multiple private schools in South Carolina that serve large numbers of African American, Hispanic and Asian children. For example, my son’s school, Second Baptist Christian Prep in Aiken, has been in existence for 26 years, serving a majority African American student body.
Support of SAFE Grants should not be seen as a lack of support for traditional public education. The SAFE Grant program is an opportunity for growth and change. I believe that expanding education options will push schools to get better, allow more parents to seek learning environments that best match their child’s needs and alleviate overcrowding that exists in many of South Carolina’s schools. SAFE Grants, if expanded in the future, could even open doors for new school development in diverse communities, something that is happening in states with similar programs.
SAFE Grants is a modest first step toward fixing an education system that has spawned achievement gaps between the rich and poor, black and white. To bridge those gaps, we must recognize that equity should be the goal, not equality. Equality seeks to provide the same services and supports to everyone regardless of need. However, equitable practices provide the right level of support and services based on the level of need in the present.
Providing equitable support allows an opportunity to level the playing field so there is truly equal opportunity for every student. As a first-generation college graduate with a low-income upbringing, I can say with confidence that had it not been for opportunities similar to that of the SAFE Grant, I may not have been put on a path toward college success.
I am now the proud parent of children who have been educated in our public school system as well as in private schools. My choices were based on the unique needs of each of my children. Yes, it has been a financial sacrifice for my family. But our children are worth it. I choose to put politics aside and put my children’s needs first. SAFE Grants will give more parents who need it the opportunity to make that same choice.
Shaunette Parker, Ph.D., is a parent, educator and the director of Parent and Community Engagement for My SC Education, which manages the online portal for the SAFE Grants program.