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. Our closing comments appear below, and the previous installments are here and here and here.
Rev. Joe Darby
Thanks for the research and references, Andrew, but I don’t live in Milwaukee, Africa or India - I live and grew up in South Carolina, and I remember when my state resisted desegregation. I remember the news reports, white protests and rhetoric about new private schools, where white children would be "safe." Attorney Tom Turnipseed, a repentant racist in Columbia, SC, fought to create those schools and now willingly admits his prejudiced motivation for doing so. That legacy needs to be acknowledged and those schools need to demonstrate that they’ve changed before many citizens will be comfortable with them.
Many white parents who didn’t send their children to private schools in those days simply couldn’t afford to do so without governmental assistance. An irony of American racism is that poor whites have also suffered, but have been culturally conditioned to not collaborate with or trust those of other colors who have common interests.
Having said that, let me keep my promise from my last installment of our dialogue. You noted that some private school parents of modest means have found ways to augment government funding for things like transportation and uniforms. I said that I wasn’t surprised, because good parents will go to great lengths for their children’s well being - and have done so for years without public funding of private schools. My wife and I did so when we were young, struggling parents.
Our sons attended V.V. Reid Kindergarten and Day Care in Columbia, SC - a 54 year old private facility sponsored by Reid Chapel AME Church. That predominately black school has a reputation for excellence and a long waiting list, and now includes an elementary school. The tuition was - and still is - considerable, but we paid it as a matter of parental choice. They also attended and graduated from public elementary, middle and high schools - now labeled as "failing" - and are now very successful men. They attended V.V. Reid with the children of physicians and attorneys and the children of janitors and cooks, but all of those children had one thing in common - their parents paid - and still pay - the full tuition. V.V. Reid does not accept any government funds and the current pastor, Rev. Norvell Goff, says that they aren’t seeking governmental funding and don’t support tuition tax credits and scholarships. As Rev. Goff said, "Parents who care will pay the price."
That points to what most puzzles me about the fight to give private schools public money, allegedly to educate needy children. The idea’s most consistently strident uncompensated supporters in South Carolina are not those of modest means or progressive political mind set, but conservative legislators and interest groups who usually tell the needy to pull themselves up by their "bootstraps" and consistently oppose what they call "handouts" or "pork" for struggling communities. From health care to infrastructure to housing, they condemn governmental involvement in the private sector, but they make a remarkable exception for education. Could they have had a miraculous social epiphany on education, or could they possibly see a financial and social benefit for their constituents and neighbors that wouldn’t be rhetorically prudent in "selling" privatization to struggling families?
I’ll conclude our dialogue with that question, with thanksgiving that a bipartisan, biracial majority of our Senators killed South Carolina’s current privatization legislation last week, and with the wise and true words of SC Education Secretary Jim Rex - when businesses consider locating in South Carolina, they never ask, "How are your private schools." Public education does matter. I’m also sure the issue isn’t entirely dead, so be blessed, take care, and we’ll chat next year.
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 wrote that "dangerous buildings can... be expeditiously made excellent and secure while occupied and before they catch fire.... The chronic inequities in public education can be expeditiously addressed with will and commitment."
"Before they catch fire"? Nearly half of all children in South Carolina drop out before finishing high school. Nearly HALF! Public schooling is burning NOW. It's been ablaze for decades, reducing countless children's dreams to ashes. Having another meeting to discuss fire codes would be madness. We need to get a ladder to these kids today.
And "fixed expeditiously with will and commitment"? Spending per pupil has more than doubled in real terms over the past forty years. Two generations of would-be reformers have worked feverishly to improve the system, passing one education bill after another at the state and federal levels, and introducing countless revisions to the curriculum and teacher training policies. Class sizes have been reduced, teachers' salaries have been raised. Short of ritual sacrifices, there is nothing that has not already been tried, repeatedly, to fix the public schools.
You wrote that "studies on the success of privatization... are a 'wash' -- each of us can find support for our positions." This is simply not true. As I've noted, the research findings comparing market to monopoly schooling all over the world favor markets by a margin of 15 to 1. That's based on the most comprehensive literature review to date. Social science, while imperfect, is science. And on this point, it is unambiguous.
As for your statement that South Carolina significantly and systematically underfunds rural black districts along the I-95 corridor, I decided to check it out. Using this year's data from South Carolina's General Appropriations spending bill, I calculated the average expenditure per pupil: $11,815. For rural districts along the I-95 corridor, it comes to $11,743 -- a difference of $72.
You've said that, in the wake of the civil war, some middle-class blacks excluded lower-class blacks from their private schools. If that's true, I would certainly join you in lamenting their behavior. But who is guilty of this cruelty today? Who is currently trying to keep poor young blacks from getting easier access to private schools? The NAACP supports scholarships for low-income students to attend private colleges, but fiercely opposes the same practice at the elementary and high school levels. Who's blocking the schoolhouse door now?
Fortunately, school choice is advancing despite such misguided opposition. There are dozens of choice programs around the nation, and the best among them are growing rapidly and with bi-partisan support. Some black leaders of your own generation, such as South Carolina Senator Robert Ford, have gotten on board. Even more of the next generation of black leaders, from Corey Booker in New Jersey to Kevin Johnson in Sacramento, are on board as well. And some of the most eloquent voices in support of educational freedom are beneficiaries of school choice.
Perhaps, if you talk with some of the tens of thousands of families benefitting from school choice around the country, you'll be convinced to join them aboard the educational freedom train. It's pulling out of the station regardless.
In closing, I'd like to thank you for participating in this exchange. I hope people on all sides of the debate have found it useful.
Andrew Coulson is director of the Cato Institute's Center for Educational Freedom, and author of Market Education: The Unknown History.