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Editorial: Which SC senators actually want to improve education? Upcoming vote could tell

SenateHembree

SC Senate Education Chairman answers questions about the school improvement bill on Thursday. Cindi Ross Scoppe

South Carolina owns about 1,300 elementary, middle and high schools, which educate 750,000 children — some quite well, others horribly.

On Tuesday, state senators will begin debating a bill aimed at improving those schools. S.419 is not the sweeping education reform that House members have portrayed it to be but rather, as Senate Education Chairman Greg Hembree told his colleagues on Wednesday, a package of needed updates to existing education laws with a few important reforms added in.

Unfortunately, some senators seem more interested in subsidizing private schools than improving the schools we own. When Mr. Hembree urged senators not to amend the bill with their favorite education proposals, Sen. Tom Davis politely objected, noting that it would be akin to “legislative malpractice” not to try to attach his proposal to pay for children to attend private rather than public schools.

The alternative justifications for proposals to throw tax money at private schools are 1) that poor parents should be allowed the same “choices” about their children’s education as well-off  parents and 2) that private schools are inherently superior to public schools.

The first argument is sort of like saying that poor people deserve the same “choice” as wealthy people to live in million-dollar mansions, and that the taxpayers have an obligation to pay for those choices. That’s a philosophical question that we reject — and that the lawmakers who support school vouchers surely would reject.

But the second argument isn’t philosophical, and it isn’t accurate. There is no question that some private schools do a better job than some public schools. Maybe they would still do a better job even if they had to accept all students, as public schools do, rather than cherry picking the ones they want; we just don’t know.

There’s also no question, though, that some private schools do an awful job. And there’s good reason to believe that if we promised to send them a supply of pre-paid students, a lot of new private schools would crop up that would do an awful job. Frankly, we’ve seen a few such examples with charter schools — and the fact that the state has been unable and the Legislature has been unwilling to stop funding failing charters underscores the likelihood that a lot of taxpayer money would be squandered — and a lot of students sacrificed — if South Carolina paid private-school tuition for any students who wanted it.

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Mr. Davis said he needs to offer his private-school choice bill as an amendment to S.419 because the Senate has agreed to debate that bill, and he can’t get the Senate to agree to debate bills to divert tax money from public schools to private schools. But if he can’t get the Senate to agree to debate such a bill, he also can’t stop a filibuster aimed at killing such a bill. Or killing a perfectly good bill that has been amended to include it.

That might be just fine with the teacher group SC for Ed, which is determined to kill S.419 because it doesn’t include everything its members want, it does include a few things they don’t want — or perhaps that they don’t understand — and they weren’t allowed to write the first draft of the bill.

But it wouldn’t be fine for all the other people in South Carolina who also want to improve the education we provide to all children, including many teachers. The bill aims to attract and retain top teachers by permanently eliminating some standardized testing, locking in higher starting pay and giving them a 30-minute student-free period each day and tax and tuition enticements. And it increases the chance that those teachers will have supportive principals and superintendents and school board members, by making it easier for the state to intervene when districts fail to provide kids the education they need.

Because it’s so clear that attaching Sen. Davis’ proposal to S.419 would kill the bill, it’s clear that this is really just an effort to force senators to take a vote that voucher supporters can use against them in an election. Although that has become a common practice by all sorts of special interests, it really is an abuse of the legislative process — and a big reason lawmakers so often fail to pass important legislation that would improve our state.

Of course, the upside is that trying to add vouchers to the bill would obliterate the pretext that supporters aren’t really trying to undermine public schools. And it would make it clear which senators actually want to do the hard work necessary to improve our schools that we own, and which ones are more interested in throwing money at private schools that might or might not be better than — or even as good as — our public schools.

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