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Editorial: If private schools get SC tax money, they need to be accountable to taxpayers

Mead Hall DSC_1066.JPG (copy)

Parents could use tax-funded vouchers to send their kids to private schools such as Aiken's Mead Hall Episcopal School under legislation the S.C. Senate will debate starting Tuesday.

South Carolina has some outstanding public schools — along with far too many astoundingly bad public schools. Unfortunately, our Legislature has never taken seriously its obligation to fix those bad schools — or to figure out how to replicate the fabulous ones.

What legislators have taken increasingly seriously is the siren song of private schools, whose lobbyists and supporters insist that they’re inherently superior to public schools and that they are, indeed, the answer to our education woes.

If only that were true.

Of course it’s not: Some private schools are truly outstanding. Some look outstanding because they refuse to admit kids who aren’t smart enough or who don’t study enough or whose parents aren’t involved in their education. Some private schools are just plain awful. And most, well, we don’t know about most of them, because private schools don’t have to show us any sort of test scores, the way public schools appropriately must.

And beyond the fact that they steal money and legislative attention away from our public schools, that’s the problem with most proposals to throw our tax dollars at private schools: These proposals  don’t require private schools that receive tax money to show the public whether they're doing a decent job of educating kids. Indeed, the opposition to the most minimal of accountability requirements is so strong that last year voucher backers allowed a bill that was one vote away from becoming law to die rather than agreeing to have students who receive vouchers take the same standardized tests that public school students take.

The bad news is that S.C. Senate leaders are determined to begin this session by passing a voucher bill, potentially as soon as this week.

The good news is that the Senate Education Committee agreed Thursday to start the debate with the plan the Senate passed last year rather than the compromise version adopted by a House-Senate conference committee.

The reason that's good is that the Senate version would require voucher recipients to take the state’s accountability tests, whereas the compromise version included the House's pick-your-own test language.

Of course, it’s not a done deal. The voucher lobby opposes it. And even though the Senate signed off on that provision last year — and even though voucher backer and Senate Republican Leader Shane Massey managed to run out the clock on the compromise bill last year after the conference committee chose the House’s approach instead — some senators will try again to sell the voucher lobbyists' preferred approach to the full Senate.

Even if the testing plan survives that challenge, it's far from perfect: Our accountability tests were designed to judge how good a job schools are doing, not how good a job individual students are doing. So we ought to require private schools that accept vouchers to administer the state-mandated tests to all their students, just like we do with pre-K programs that accept public funding. Indeed, that's the change the full Senate should make when it starts debating S.39 on Tuesday.

Another change the Senate should make is to ensure that the bill is limited to the poor kids who lawmakers have been telling us for decades they want to help with vouchers. The bill opens vouchers to both Medicaid-eligible students and students with individual education plans. There’s some overlap, but about 100,000 of South Carolina’s 790,000 public school students have IEPs; they include not only those with developmental or intellectual disabilities but also those with attention deficit disorder and other “specific learning disabilities.”

Since the legislation wisely limits the number of students who can receive vouchers — 5,000 the first year, rising to 15,000 by the third year — every well-off student who gets a voucher means one more poor kid doesn't. It would be better to retain the income requirement for all recipients.

Senators also should remove the invitation to abuse in their bill: a provision that allows voucher funds to be spent on tutors, computers and a long list of other expenses culminating in “any other educational expense” approved by the state Education Department. That not only requires state officials to get involved in individual decisions but also opens the door to misuse; and some of the safeguards that the expansive definition requires render parts of the program unworkable. This is one of the few cases where the Senate would be better off adopting the language in last year’s House bill, which said vouchers could be spent only on “tuition, fees, textbooks, and fees for transportation.”

Those changes still won't make S.39 a good idea. But they would limit the potential for abuse and make it more likely to help the students lawmakers say they want to help. And the changes also would help ensure that those of us paying for the vouchers — taxpayers — know what we're getting for our money.

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