Single-gender education is thriving at Ashley Hall (copy) (copy)

Under a bill up for debate on Tuesday, some parents could receive SC tax money to send their children to private schools. That is, assuming those schools admit the students, and assuming the parents can pay tens of thousands of dollars in tuition costs that the state checks don't cover. (Staff photo)

Nearly 800,000 students attend S.C. public schools. Private schools educate only about 45,000 students. So what’s the best way to make sure all children in our state get the education they need in order to become productive citizens who move our state forward?

Should we pay parents to pull their children out of the public schools and send them to private schools, which have neither the capacity nor the desire to serve more than a tiny portion of them? Or should we make the sometimes-difficult changes that are necessary to improve the schools we own, the schools that have the capacity and the mandate to accommodate all those kids?

A handful of state senators seem determined to pursue the mathematically challenged approach, and they’re holding a special off-session hearing Tuesday in Columbia to try to push forward a bill that would send your tax dollars to private schools.

Under S.556, low-income families could receive roughly $7,300 — the average amount the state spends on each student — to send a child to a private school. The program, also open to special-needs children, would be capped at 33,000 students the first year, then 67,000 the second year. Starting in the third year, it would be open to as many as 608,000 public school students.

The S.C. Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Office estimates the bill would take $222 million from public schools in the first year and $457 million in the second year. It says it can’t begin to guess how much it could cost the schools in the third and subsequent years.

That’s a significant hit for already-struggling schools. If a single school lost, say, 30 third-graders, it could simply eliminate one third-grade teacher, although that wouldn’t cover the $220,000 those students would take with them. More likely, though, that school would lose a half-dozen kindergartners, three or four first-graders, seven or eight third-graders, and so on.

People who complain about charter schools and proposals to let school districts contract with nonprofits to operate some public schools might want to pay attention. This is what privatizing schools looks like.

Supporters say the bill would give poor parents a better chance of sending their kids to private schools. Or that sending tax dollars to private schools would push public schools to improve. We wish it were that simple.

Even if there were enough private school seats available, most high-quality private schools stay that way by being extremely selective. So the kids who most need to “escape” public schools probably wouldn’t be admitted. And in most good private schools, $7,300 wouldn’t cover the tuition cost, much less the transportation and other expenses that public school students don’t face.

More significantly, the logic of improving public schools by giving their funding to private schools doesn’t hold up. Consider: How would that theoretical competition push a principal to get rid of incompetent teachers, when state law makes that almost impossible, and when all the competent teachers who are willing to work at that school for the pay they’d receive already do?

How would this imaginary competition push a school board to kick out the students who refuse to study or pay attention, and steal the teacher’s time away from the rest of the students — but who aren’t quite disruptive enough to be expelled under state law?

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How would that competition allow a school to lengthen the school day and the school year and require more courses for graduation, when state law doesn’t allow that?

How would it allow schools to cut the class size in half or bring in a second teacher when the Legislature won’t provide the money to pay for that, and won’t allow the schools to raise that money locally?

We could go on, but you probably get the point: We already know a lot of things that schools need to do in order to provide a better education, but state law either prohibits them or makes it too difficult to even try. And now some of the very legislators who have failed to pass the laws necessary to make those improvements want us to believe that public schools will magically improve if they just throw tax money at private schools.

It doesn’t work that way.

If the Legislature wants to improve the schools it owns, it has to give those schools the tools they need to make the improvements — not simply blame them for not doing things they don’t have the legal authority to do. And it has to give them the resources they need — not strip them of those resources in order to fund the schools it doesn’t own or have any control over.