A healthy appetite for education reform

Many of you have read my articles for SC PIE before. For those who don’t know me, I would like to share a little bit about me:  I currently serve as the Governor’s appointee to the State Board of Education. Prior to this I represented Greenville and Pickens on the Board. Before that I served on the Governor’s Commission on Women under Governor Beasley. I am an engineer by training, so I apologize ahead of time for my love of numbers.

But more than an engineer, as I said, I am a mom.  As a mom in South Carolina, I care about my kids and their futures and I care about all of the kids in South Carolina and their futures. Bottom line:  my daughters’ futures and all of our futures are tied up together with all of the children in our state’s futures. I know that the parents in South Carolina want the best for their kids. And we need to be demanding the best for every kiddo. As a member of the State Board of Education I have voted to raise standards for our students and teachers, knowing that if we don’t demand better for the kids, we won’t get it.

So where are we?  I know that numbers get tossed around a lot these days, so I promise I will just put three in front of you. A number can be a snapshot of the whole. When I looked through all of the numbers these are the ones that really jumped out at me- that made me ashamed. They made me want to fight for better opportunities for ALL of the children of South Carolina.

First:  for every 100 students that entered the 9th grade this year; only 52 of them will graduate from high school in four years.  Now some will quibble with this number and say it is really 58 or 60. More to the point: Only just over a half of our kids are completing high school- an achievement that is minimal for being employable in this information age. Those 48 children deserve better.  Our state needs better. All the statistics tell us we will never do better as a state if all of our kids don’t get diplomas.

Second:  In South Carolina only 10% of African American eighth graders are proficient readers as defined by the National Assessment of Academic Progress.  10% I know, it is really hard to believe this one. But it is true. We know that being able to read for information is a key to being successful in high school and in life. I don’t know how anyone in good conscience can defend the current educational system in our state when 90% of a group of kids aren’t even prepared to achieve in school and life. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream will be out of reach for these students and for our state as long as we keep failing so many children. I wish I could say that the trend was improving, but since 1992 there hasn’t been any significant closing of the achievement gap in reading in our state.

Third:  The best and brightest in South Carolina are further behind their peers nationwide than the average students of the state.  The College Board compared South Carolina’s A, B and C students? SAT scores with the rest of the nation?s A, B and C students. Our A students scored on average 50 points lower than the rest of the nation’s A students while our C students scored 28 points lower than the rest of the nation’s C students. The grade distribution in South Carolina is comparable to the rest of the nation, so it isn’t that grades are inflated in South Carolina. 

Simply put, our top students just aren’t competitive with the rest of the nation. Sure there are exceptional students that get the perfect SAT scores- we give them awards at the State Board every year- but the larger achievement gap for our best students shows that our current school system isn’t meeting the needs of our State’s greatest resource.

It is in this context that the Put Parents In Charge Act was developed as a way to increase access for all children in South Carolina to an education that their parents determine is the best for them. 

Up to date details about the PPIC Act are available on-line at www.scrgov.org.

I want to clear up some misleading that has been going on about the fiscal impact that the PPIC will have on the funding of education in SC.  Opponents have claimed that the PPIC will deprive the public schools of hundreds of millions of dollars.  Now, I promised that I would only give you three numbers, so I am not going to pull out my computer spreadsheet or the Clemson University study that crunches all the numbers. These can be looked at on the following website: www.scpolicycouncil.com

What I will do is share a simple illustration about the funding of education in South Carolina to show how misleading and disingenuous the opponents to the PPIC Act are.

The lunch shown here is a pretty good representation of the sources of education dollars in South Carolina. There are State (the sandwich) dollars, Federal dollars (the carrots) and local dollars (the apple).
State dollars are the majority of dollars used to fund the operational costs of educating children- teachers, administrators, supplies, transportation, so for the purpose of this illustration the turkey sandwich will represent the state dollars for education in our state. These are allocated by the legislature and funded through income tax dollars and sales tax dollars- remember that penny?

Federal dollars are a smaller amount and are based on the number of children in poverty in our state. These dollars are allocated at the federal level and disbursed by the State Department of Education. Even though federal funding of education has dramatically increased in our state, it is a smaller portion of the total funding of education. I have picked a bag of carrots for these dollars.

Local dollars are the monies that are generated through local property taxes and sales taxes. These dollars vary from county to county depending on the wealth of the county and the sales taxes levied. In general, most local funds go to pay for buildings and other capital costs. ‘Local match money’ is money that is generated at the local level to pay for operating costs and is mandated by state law. The apple in this lunch will stand for the local dollars.

Now, remember these are the funding sources, not the allocations. Allocations are determined by the legislatures- federal and state- and the departments of education- federal and state and the local districts.

So, looking at this lunch, let’s follow what will happen to the lunch when a parent claims the tax credit for sending their child to a school of choice or when an individual claims the tax credit for giving to a Scholarship Granting Organization.
The PPIC Act specifically limits the tax credit to half of the State funding for a student. This means that at most the amount of money coming into the state treasury will be diminished by half for each student that moves out of traditional public schools. In our lunch example, this means that the lunch is made smaller by half of a sandwich. Conveniently, I have cut this sandwich in half, so let’s take half of it out of the lunch.

Does the PPIC Act affect any other funding source for the ‘lunch’? Nope. The federal dollars are allocated to the state based on the population of children in our state. So, the carrots go untouched. Local taxes are based on local property taxes and sales taxes, neither of which is affected by the number of children in public schools. So, the apple is also still whole.

So, now the state has half of a sandwich, a bag of carrots and an apple and no child assigned to eat the lunch. What happens with this extra lunch? Well, the legislature will determine that, but the most obvious answer is what we all have known since we were kids and there was a piece of carrot cake at Sunday dinner- it gets divvied up among the rest of the kids that are there.

So, while technically there will be fewer dollars coming in for education in our state- there really is half of a sandwich less- The PPIC Act according to Milton Friedman when he reviewed the Clemson University study ‘yields a substantial free lunch to the State (which will save large sums), and hence to taxpayers’ because the state has one less child to educate yet still receives all of the federal and local funds along with half of the state funds.

We have an obligation in South Carolina to make sure that all children have access to a high quality education. While gains have been made in our state through the implementation of state adopted standards and the Education Accountability Act that finally gives parents and the communities information about what is going on in their schools, we are so far behind that we have to, as Governor Sanford has stated, ‘make transformational changes’ in education in our state.

We have to dramatically improve the three numbers I put before you. We must change 52 out of 100 to 100 out of 100 ninth graders completing high school successfully and on time. We have an obligation to make sure that all of our eighth graders are proficient readers so that they are able to navigate this information age. We cannot have our best and brightest lagging their peers in the nation and the world. We must prepare them to be the next generation of leaders not just in our state but in our nation. Only by addressing the educational needs of all children will all children, and therefore our state be able to compete in the 21st Century.

The Put Parents In Charge Act offers a vehicle for parents to intercede for their children and find the best learning environment. At the same time it will increase the education money available per pupil- allowing our legislators to increase teacher pay and summer school programs for students who need more time on task. Milton Friedman said that the PPIC Act will result in a better educated and skilled citizenry. Isn’t that what we all want?

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