A tax credit bill was recently proposed in South Carolina to give parents an easier choice between public and private schools. It would do this by cutting taxes on parents who pay for their own children’s education, and by cutting taxes on anyone who donates to a non-profit Scholarship Granting Organization (SGO). The SGOs would subsidize tuition for low income families (who owe little in taxes and so couldn’t benefit substantially from the direct tax credit). Charleston minister Rev. Joseph Darby opposes such programs, and I support them. We’ve decided to have this dialogue to explain why. The previous installments are here and here. The final installment is here.
Rev. Joe Darby
We agree on something, Andrew -- you don’t lock kids in a burning building while you try to put out the fire. Dangerous buildings can, however, be expeditiously made excellent and secure while occupied and before they catch fire, as was the case with the first church I pastored - all it took was will and commitment. The chronic inequities in public education can be expeditiously addressed with will and commitment. The most shameful thing about my state’s five year fight for scholarships and tax credits is that our legislators have spent time, energy and resources debating privatization, but haven’t taken a single step toward improving public education. They’ve simply chosen to argue over the merits of a new house while the old, still occupied house deteriorates.
I commend your zeal in gathering and noting studies, but like Biblical Scriptures, scholarly studies can be carefully chosen, subjectively interpreted and tactically presented to gain one’s desired result. At the end of the day, studies on the success of privatization and its impact on public schools are a "wash" -- each of us can find support for our positions.
I remain convinced that privatization in South Carolina would not benefit low income families. Struggling parents who could claim tax credits would still have to pay tuition "up front," and those tax credits would not cover the tuition for most quality private schools in South Carolina. Scholarships might help, but they aren’t guaranteed. I recently learned, however, of another troubling alternative beyond the proposed law from a parent in a state where privatization is a reality. She wrote me a letter telling how she received mailings touting private schools, noting that only bad parents leave their children in public schools, and offering to put her in touch with helpful tuition lenders. She took the bait, and is now in greater debt because of predatory lenders who preyed on a mother who simply wanted the best for her child.
You also said, based on expenditures in Charleston, that we’re already adequately funding our public schools -- although Charleston is now facing a $10 million shortfall for the coming school year. Look beyond Charleston, Andrew, for South Carolina’s public schools are funded with a mix of state and local revenue. We have excellent schools along our state’s urban, businesses rich, predominately white and politically conservative I-85 corridor. The I-95 corridor, however, is rural, has a limited tax base, is predominately African-American, is politically progressive to liberal, and is bordered by some of the most underfunded and needy schools in our nation.
The I-95 corridor, however, was the site of a recent blessing. A mid-western businessman was so touched by the story of the J.V. Martin School in Dillon, SC, that he donated new desks and equipment to the school and paid for their installation and for campus painting. His voluntary and genuine generosity is a reminder that businesses with conscience and good motives don’t have to wait for statutory privatization to make a difference -- they can make a difference in the public schools right now.
You also noted that resourceful parents have found ways to augment government funds for their children in private schools for things like providing transportation and buying uniforms. I’m not surprised by that, because good parents will go to great lengths for their children’s well being. They’ve been doing so for years -- without public funds going to private schools. I can testify to that, because my wife and I did so when our sons were young and we were struggling parents, but I’ll save that story for my last installment in our dialogue.
The Rev. Darby is senior pastor of the AME Morris Brown Church in Charleston, and First Vice President of the Charleston Branch of the NAACP.
You've cited two historical examples to suggest that school choice might hurt kids who remain in public schools. But as I noted last time, the evidence from actual choice programs shows that doesn't happen.
Still, let's take a closer look at the historical record. Public schools discriminated against and segregated black children for more than a century. Worse yet, an 1850 Massachusetts supreme court ruling upholding segregation in public schools was a key precedent cited by the U.S. Supreme Court to establish the "separate but equal" doctrine in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896). Jim Crow laws rested, in part, on a legacy of racist public schools.
It was common in the 19th century for public schools to require reading of the Protestant King James version of the Bible, and Catholic children who refused were sometimes whipped or beaten for the offense. Such punishments were upheld by the Maine supreme court.
And while it is true that some racist whites tried to use private schools to flee integration, their more common tactic was to move to areas where the public schools remained overwhelmingly white. As I wrote in Market Education, "during the height of white flight... total private school enrollment actually decreased by 17 percent (public enrollment also decreased, but only by 3 percent)."
Public schools today may be somewhat more racially integrated than private schools in the earliest grades, but private schools are more integrated at the end of high school -- no doubt in part because public school dropout rates for black students are astronomical. Private schools have repeatedly been shown to significantly raise graduation rates over those found in public schools, even after controlling for other factors, especially for minority children. And when it comes to truly meaningful, voluntary integration -- the peers kids choose to sit with in school lunchrooms -- private schools are significantly more integrated than public schools.
A few years ago, a friend of mine was seeking support for school choice among community leaders in the rural south. At one home, the man asked my friend: "So, black kids would be able to attend private schools like the one my kids go to?" My friend answered yes. "And they'd be prepared for the same kinds of jobs as my kids?" Again, my friend said yes. "Well now, I don't think I can support that," was the man's reply.
That was an uncommon reaction, but it offers a glimpse into the mind of the modern racist. They see the upward mobility offered by school choice as a threat.
And there's no need to make dubious analogies to the banking industry to understand how markets work in education. We can simply look at real education markets in action. Consider the new book The Beautiful Tree: A Personal Journey into How the World's Poorest People are Educating Themselves. From the shanty towns and fishing villages of Africa, to the slums of India, to the rural farming villages of China, the poor are already abandoning public schools that have failed them and setting up their own private schools. These entrepreneurial schools outperform the local public schools at a tiny fraction of the cost, and the parents love them.
The higher labor costs in this country put private schooling out of reach of many poor families, but an education tax credit bill would change that.
You asked why we can’t fix the public schools before offering parents such a choice. The answer is simple: the way you "fix" a monopoly like public schooling is to inject consumer choice and competition. In other words, school choice IS the solution. We can’t fix public education without it.
Andrew Coulson is director of the Cato Institute's Center for Educational Freedom, and author of Market Education: The Unknown History.