The South Carolina legislature is currently considering a tax credit bill intended 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 next installment is here.
Rev. Joe Darby
Opening Comment, Con
My local newspaper, The Charleston Post and Courier, recently affirmed their continuing editorial suggestion that we “give School Tax Credits a Try.” I think that’s a very bad idea.
My wife is a public school teacher — and an excellent one at that. She spends much of her time either shaping young minds or preparing to do so, even supplementing meager supplies at her own expense and using creative means to reach and teach children described as “at risk.” Her school is almost 100% “free lunch,” but her students score well on state tests because she’s a good teacher. Most of her colleagues who labor under difficult circumstances are excellent teachers too. Rather than simply blaming an ominous “public education establishment,” we should note the truth — objective studies show that private education is not always a winner. A 2008 United States Department of Education study of the District of Columbia voucher program found that students in the program generally did no better on reading and math tests after two years than their public school peers.
A mass exodus to private schools will weaken public schools by leaving behind parents who have the least ability to advocate for or assist their children, and remove positive peer role models from struggling students. The major beneficiaries of private school choice in South Carolina will not be poor families, for the tuition tax credits and scholarships proposed will not cover the cost of many good private schools and will leave parents to take up the slack and to provide other things like uniforms, transportation and extracurricular activity fees. The major beneficiaries will be affluent parents who will simply have more disposable income when their share of their children’s tuition is decreased.
Before we give school tax credits a “try” we should first give equitably funded, staffed and equipped public schools a “try,” for many southern states have never done so. Excellence in public education for African‐Americans was frowned upon after the Post Civil War period of reconstruction. In Paradoxes of Segregation by R. Scott Baker, Charleston, SC School Superintendent A.B. Rhett touted what was Burke Industrial School in 1939 as a place to “supply cooks, maids and delivery boys.”
His views matched those of the political powers that be when South Carolina’s schools were separate and unequal. The U.S. Supreme Court outlawed segregated schools in 1954, but South Carolina held out until the 1960’s. Our legislatively ordained strategies to maintain segregation included allowing parents to “choose” their children’s public schools and giving state “scholarships” to white parents who sent their children to private schools established to maintain segregation — the same essential strategies in the present quest for school tax credits. Many predominately African‐American schools were woefully underfunded, and when whites fled the public schools for private schools, public schools sank into a state of chronic neglect. We can’t label public schools as “failures” when we’ve failed our schools. When we fully and equitably fund, equip and staff all public schools, we can then “try” tuition credits, for parents can then choose between quality public and private schools — although that might be bad for the private school business.
I serve as the pastor of a church in peninsular Charleston, where architectural preservation is serious business. Homes and businesses that have been long abandoned or neglected and are all but falling over aren’t torn down — they’re rebuilt and restored in spite of years of chronic neglect. If we can do that for neglected homes, then we should also acknowledge our past failings and do the same for our public schools instead of simply tearing them apart or abandoning them.
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.
Opening Comment, Pro
On paper, the United States offers its citizens a solemn promise: work hard and you can succeed here — regardless of your race, sex, creed, or family wealth. But there’s a catch. To secure a good job you first need a good education. On paper, we’ve taken care of that, too. Over the past 150 years we’ve built up a monumental system of free state‐run schools that aims to ensure every child access to a quality education.
In reality, it’s all lies.
If you’re in the top fifth of wage earners, there’s just a one‐in‐a‐hundred chance that you are functionally illiterate. If you’re in the bottom fifth or have no income at all, the odds are that you cannot understand a newspaper or follow the directions on a pill bottle. Despite the relentless efforts of generations of reformers, America’s system of public schooling has failed in its most essential duty. We are not equipping all children to succeed in private life and participate in public life. America’s meritocratic promise is a lie.
What can we do about it?
There are those who still believe that the existing system can be fixed. Having compared different kinds of school systems from ancient Greece to the modern day, and from the poorest to the richest nations on Earth, I am convinced that that effort is futile. The problems with the status quo are endemic to its design.
Public schooling hasn’t failed so many children for so long because teachers weren’t smart enough, or paid well enough, or because classes were too large, or the federal government played too small a role. It has failed because it lacks the freedoms and incentives that drive progress in every other field. Public school teachers are hamstrung by regulations and are paid based on time served rather than classroom performance. Parents are not free to seek out the public or private educational setting best suited to their children, they are extorted into the state system because of its monopoly on $12,000 per pupil in government funding.
But should we prevent people from trying to fix it? Certainly not. If they think they can bring to public schooling the same incredible progress that other human endeavors have experienced over the past forty years, more power to them.
By the same token, no one who wants what’s best for kids should stand in the way of a program that would give parents educational alternatives today. Our children cannot wait to see if the current generation of public school reformers will somehow succeed where their predecessors failed.
I’m an engineer by training and a geek by nature. I advocate programs like the one under consideration in South Carolina because the evidence overwhelmingly supports them. Scientific studies comparing this kind of free enterprise education system to conventional public schooling favor the free enterprise approach by a margin of 15 to 1.
Others advocate school choice for more personal reasons. DC school voucher recipient Carlos Battle wrote a poem explaining his gratitude and commitment to school choice, and delivered it to the rally here last week in support of that program:
surrender me from the typical stereotype of a
black young man
one who slings rocks, smokes weed, and keeps a
gun at hand
i am a whole different guy
one who reads books and wears a tie
you see, I’m changing the perception of a young
i’m climbing the ladder of success — try and stop
me, try as hard as you can.…
Please don’t stop Carlos or the children who would follow him up that ladder.
Andrew Coulson is director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom, and author of Market Education: The Unknown History.
The front page of the tabloid Washington Examiner blares
Violence mars students’ days
Weapons, assaults common at area schools
Now I know that headlines have to be short to fit the space. But a more accurate headline would read
Weapons, assaults common at government‐run schools
Fights, sexual assaults, and deadly weapons, described in the article as happening “almost once a day at some area high schools,” are almost nonexistent at private schools. Which is why it’s such a shame that the small number of District of Columbia students who have been granted a voucher to escape the D.C. public schools are going to lose that lifeline if the Democratic majority in Congress gets its way. I once proposed in the Washington Post:
The D.C. school board should declare an educational emergency and offer a voucher good in any private or public school in the District to every student who is assigned to a school that has had a shooting or stabbing or more than one weapon confiscation in the past year, whether on school property or on school buses.
I called it the “voucher trigger provision,” but the Post went with the more sober title “A Right to Safer Schools.”
But the policy shouldn’t be restricted to D.C. students. The Examiner article is in fact not about the D.C. schools; it’s about the suburban schools in Maryland and Virginia. Suburban kids would also benefit from more choice, including the choice to move from dangerous to safe schools.
Tomorrow afternoon at 1pm, supporters of Washington DC Opportunity Scholarships will be rallying in Freedom Plaza to save the school voucher program. Why? That’s easy: Because a federal Department of Education study shows that parents are overwhelmingly more satisfied with it than they are with DC’s public schools. Because the same study shows that the program is raising student achievement above the level in the public schools. Because the children participating in it feel it is giving them a chance to realize their full potential in life — a chance that will disappear if the program is allowed to die, as they have attested in numerous YouTube videos.
The harder question is why Congress — particularly congressional Democrats led by Sen. Richard Durbin (D., Ill.) — want to kill the vouchers. Their stated reason is that it robs money from needy public schools and gives it to private schools that are already flush from lavish tuition fees.
But the voucher program not only does not take money away from DC public schools, the language of the law actually includes an extra $13 million annually for DC public schools, above their normal funding stream. As for lavish vs. needy schools, it’s true that there’s a huge gap between what is spent per pupil on public education in DC and the average tuition charged at the voucher‐accepting private schools: a yawning $20,000 gap. The current year budget for the District of Columbia allocates $26,555 per pupil for k‑12 education — up from $24,600 last year. Meanwhile, the Department of Education study linked to above puts the average tuition at voucher schools at $6,620. So vouchers are getting better results at one quarter the cost.
Clearly, Democrats have other reasons for opposing the voucher program, and this letter from the NEA might have a little something to do with it.
Reason’s Nick Gillespie has a great new video in which anguished parents and students ask president Barack Obama why he’s letting the DC school voucher program die.
Yesterday, I had an op‐ed go up on Townhall.com summarizing what I think of President Obama’s first 100 days when it comes to education. Long story short: Lots of nice‐sounding rhetoric, but the opposite of real reform.
Today, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan — who has embodied the administration’s all‐talk, awful‐action approach to education — did me a real solid by penning an op‐ed for CNN.com beautifully illustrating exactly what I wrote. Whether it’s his effusive praise of his boss for shoveling tons of federal dough into already obese schools, or his empty, jargon‐soaked rhetoric about change — “These discretionary funds are a carrot for educators who will break the mold, scale up successful programs and transform whole school systems” — Duncan really drives home my point.
And so, thanks for coming through for me, Arne! Now, about those DC voucher kids…
I just wanted to follow up on a question Andrew Coulson raised last week about a poll showing a plurality of South Carolina African Americans in support of school choice. Andrew notes:
A new poll released today reveals that 43 percent of African Americans in South Carolina support private school choice while only 40 percent oppose it. What’s even more interesting, however, is that 53 percent said that “giving parents a tax credit or scholarship to choose the best school for their children — public or private — would improve the state’s dismal high school graduation rate.”
So an additional 10 percent of respondents think the program will work but don’t currently support it. Why? Perhaps because many black religious and political leaders in South Carolina have criticized the concept for years.
Certainly opposition from black leadership has probably softened support, but I don’t think that explains the difference in support between the first and subsequent questions. As Andrew notes, the other results peg pro‐choice responses consistently at 53 percent.
Here’s the question in full: “Should parents, grandparents or custodial relatives be allowed to receive state scholarships for their children to go to private school if they feel the public school is not meeting their children’s needs?”
First, the description of the tax credit program instead implies a state voucher program. This is bad wording, but probably doesn’t drop support since black support for vouchers tends to be equal or higher than support for credits.
I think the real problem here is the phrase phrase “state scholarships.” This sounds to me like there very well could be conditions, such as academic merit, placed on who is eligible for the “state scholarships.” There are need‐based and merit‐based scholarships, but they are typically not available to all, and the question is at the very least confusing. This ambiguity, with the suggestion of limited availability, might have softened support/increased undecideds.
In the context of consistent 53 percent support on other, better‐worded choice‐related questions, I think we can reasonably conclude that poor question wording on the first question likely dropped support for school choice about 10 points.
We really need to be careful with public policy questions … small changes can have a serious impact on the results.
Arne Duncan has an op‐ed in the WSJ today headlined, “School Reform Means Doing What’s Best for Kids: Let’s have an honest assessment of charter schools.”
So how about an honest assessment of how the DC voucher program is doing?
I guess I won’t hold my breath, since Duncan already neglected to bring the findings to light during the debate in Congress and then he tried to bury and spin away the positive results when they did come out. And then he needlessly prevented 200 poor kids from enjoying good schools for at least next year.
President Obama and Duncan’s unwillingness to address the facts show that they have been hypocritical and dishonest on education.
I can’t say it any better than Juan Williams did:
By going along with Secretary Duncan’s plan to hollow out the D.C. voucher program this president, who has spoken so passionately about the importance of education, is playing rank politics with the education of poor children. It is an outrage …
This reckless dismantling of the D.C. voucher program does not bode well for arguments to come about standards in the effort to reauthorize No Child Left Behind. It does not speak well of the promise of President Obama to be the “Education President,’ who once seemed primed to stand up for all children who want to learn and especially minority children.
And its time for all of us to get outraged about this sin against our children.