Education reformer won't take stance

Sen. Robert Ford is calling for tax credits to pay for private school tuition.

COLUMBIA — The founder of a Chicago inner-city preparatory school that turned out graduates who attended the world's most elite institutions would not take a position Tuesday on the school choice movement in South Carolina.

Marva Collins, the winner of multiple humanitarian awards and the namesake of a 1981 made-for-television movie starring Cicely Tyson and Morgan Freeman, was invited to the Statehouse by Charleston Democratic Sen. Robert Ford to speak about how to improve education.

Ford is championing the use of tax credits for private school tuition and the creation of a scholarship fund to help supplement the tax credits for poor children.

Collins said she would rather not comment on the matter when asked where she stands on the school choice issue. She said she is concerned with finding brilliant teachers and strong curriculum that puts an emphasis on the classics.

"If I gave you a choice today, you have to have some intellect as to what to choose," Collins said. "... Our parents have been miseducated themselves.

"How can they really make positive choices about what their children should be doing? They received a poorer education themselves. If we don't change their children, it becomes a self-repeating cycle."

Collins, who lives on Hilton Head Island, moved to South Carolina about 15 years ago. She founded her school, which opened as Westside Preparatory School and was later renamed for Collins, in 1975. It closed last year.

Collins said she does not believe that money is the determinantof success and that poverty is not an indication of a student's abilities. She also said that the state can talk all it likes about school choice, but until the curriculum in schools is changed, the educational results won't be different.

"Just because you have the money to pay the tuition doesn't make it a good school," Collins said.

Ford said high-caliber teachers do not want to teach in inner-city or rural schools, "so a lot of them come to school, file their fingernails and can't wait until 4 o'clock to go home."

His bill, along with one endorsed by state Superintendent of Education Jim Rex that would increase educational options in public schools, will be debated today in a Senate subcommittee and could get a vote.

"We want the General Assembly to look out for all the citizens of South Carolina," Ford said. "We're not trying to break up the public schools. We're going to always have public schools, but certain parents want choices and we should give them those choices by helping them with tax credits. That's no more than right."

Ford also alleged that teachers are breaking their contracts to leave the troubled schools. Jim Foster, director of communications for the Department of Education, said that if a teacher violates his contract, he is suspended. In the last year, 35 of 50,000 public school teachers were suspended, and that includes all reasons. Contract violations would account only for a portion.

"It's really sad to see Senator Ford come to this, to see him buy in so completely to the tactics of these lobbying groups funded with out-of-state money," Foster said in a statement. "Make any kind of mean-spirited attack on public schools, throw out any kind of outrageous claim and dress it up as fact.

"As strategies go, that's about as cynical as it gets," he said. "But South Carolinians are smart enough to see this stuff for what it is."