Editorial Roundup: South Carolina

The Post and Courier. June 8, 2022.

Editorial: Ensure SC taxpayers get money’s worth from school voucher program

We still believe the S.C. Legislature needs to finally get serious about fixing the problems with the public schools it owns rather than paying parents to abandon those schools — cracking down on school boards that are more interested in job preservation than education, giving principals the tools to attract the best teachers and get rid of the ones who aren’t up to the job, for example — but our lawmakers seem determined to throw our tax dollars at private schools.

The one saving grace is that the competing versions of the House and Senate voucher legislation each contain provisions that can mitigate the damage — assuming negotiators make the right choices in a series of trade-offs that will determine the final form of S.935 that they ask the two bodies to sign off on as early as next week.

Both the House and the Senate made major changes to their proposals during floor debate — the Senate to inject some public accountability into the measure and the House to open a huge loophole that could upend what lawmakers say are their priorities. But some of the House’s better provisions survived the mostly overlooked debate two days before the Legislature adjourned its regular session last month. And some of the Senate’s worst provisions survived its debate in March.

Both versions propose to fund so-called education scholarship accounts for a limited number of students to attend private schools: $5,000 each in the House version and $6,000 in the Senate version. The most obvious difference is that the House version creates a three-year pilot program that uses surplus funds to provide vouchers to 5,000 students; the Senate version creates a permanent program that starts with 5,000 students and grows to 15,000 in the third year.

The most important difference is that the Senate version requires students who receive vouchers to take the same standardized tests that we require of students in our public schools. Those tests were designed to help us hold our public schools accountable for the job they do with our tax dollars, and so obviously we ought to have the same accountability provision when we’re giving our tax dollars to private schools.

So we ought to require private schools to administer the state-mandated tests to all their students, like we do to pre-K programs that accept public funding. But the Senate version is much better than the House version, which allows the private schools to pick the standardized tests they want and therefore gives the people paying the bills — the taxpayers — no way to compare the quality of the schools.

The Senate version also does a better job of targeting the vouchers to the poor kids lawmakers have always said they want most to help. Again, it’s not as strict as it should be: The Senate program would be open to both Medicaid-eligible students and students with individual education plans. There’s some overlap, but about 100,000 of South Carolina’s 720,000 public school students have IEPs; they include not only those with developmental or intellectual disabilities but also those with attention deficit disorder and other “specific learning disabilities.” For every well-off student who gets a voucher, there’s potentially one more poor kid who doesn’t.

On a quick read, the House version looks like it’s more tightly targeted to poor kids, because with two small exceptions, it seems to be limited to Medicaid-eligible students. But as Rep. Russell Ott pointed out in the House debate, if poor students don’t claim the 5,000 available slots, then any students — including the children of millionaires — can claim them.

Granted, we don’t expect a lot of millionaires to try to suck up the money, but if poor parents don’t jump on the program the first year, it’s easy to see a scenario where savvier upper-income parents could grab up the slots — and once they get a voucher, they get to keep it until their child, and any additional children they have, graduates from high school. Why in the world, when you say you want to give poor kids the same educational choices that wealthier kids have always had, would you even allow that possibility?

Where the House version does a better job of making the program accountable to the taxpayers is in limiting what parents can purchase with the vouchers: “tuition, fees, textbooks, and fees for transportation.”

The Senate version, on the other hand, allows the money to be spent on tutors, computers and a long list of other expenses culminating in “any other educational expense” approved by the state Education Department. The broader allowance not only requires state officials to get involved in individual decisions but also opens the door to misuse, and some of the safeguards that the expansive definition requires render parts of the program unworkable.

Of course it also makes sense to take the House approach of rolling this out as a three-year pilot program rather than creating a permanent new program. We suffer no illusions that the Legislature will shut down the program after three years, but the pilot status makes it easier to adjust it to changing circumstances — including the possibility that the S.C. Supreme Court will decide the program as designed violates the state constitution.

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The Post and Courier. May 19, 2022.

Editorial: Livestreaming meetings does not have to wait

One of the many heartbreakers from the frantic end of the 2022 regular legislative session was that a bill to make school board meetings more accessible to the public died after getting hijacked by a completely unrelated debate.

After failing to meet a legislative deadline to get a bill to the Senate limiting what schools can teach about race and sex, the House attached the controversial measure to a Senate-passed bill requiring all S.C. school boards to livestream their meetings.

The Senate had declined to take up its own bills to limit public school curricula — borne of social media and cable news outrage over what critics call “critical race theory” — so when the House returned S.945 to the Senate with that addition on the session’s final day, senators simply let the whole bill die rather than sending it to a conference committee to try to salvage the underlying legislation.

Whatever you think about the effort to restrict classroom discussions about race’s role in U.S. history or to prohibit mandatory “gender or sexual diversity training or counseling,” it’s important to note that the House did not reject the livestream requirement, as it could have done. Instead, it kept that requirement in its bill and added the curriculum measure on the bottom.

It’s important to note, too, that the Senate didn’t let the bill die because lawmakers had second thoughts about the livestream requirements. Senators knew they didn’t have time for the curriculum debate — which received multiple hours of debate on multiple days in the House — and weren’t interested in being painted as opposed to what the legislation calls unbiased teaching if they refused to accept the House’s language in conference committee.

All of this is a long way of saying that the third of S.C. school boards that aren’t allowing the public to attend their meetings by livestream shouldn’t feel as if they’re off the hook. Nor should school boards that pick and choose which meetings to livestream, or that don’t include committee meetings and work sessions. Just the opposite; there’s good reason to think the legislature will pass this bill next year — and no good reason lawmakers would not do so, we hope even expanding it to include other governmental bodies. School boards would do well to go ahead and get started. It isn’t difficult, it won’t hurt them, and it could win some good will from both legislators and the public they serve.

For that matter, those city and county councils and state boards and commissions that aren’t routinely livestreaming their meetings should do so as well.

It’s tempting to conclude that the only reason any elected bodies in South Carolina aren’t livestreaming their meetings is that they have something to hide, but we recognize that some might believe erroneously that it’s too expensive or difficult, or they might simply have no idea how to go about it. The good news is that there’s plenty of help.

Although the state Education Department doesn’t have the mandate to create a model policy for school districts, as the bill would have given it, it’s an easy enough thing for school boards to reach out to the Charleston County School District or one of several other districts that already do this for guidance. We would encourage the S.C. School Boards Association to assist them as well. And there are plenty of cities, counties and state agencies that other bodies can look to for tips on how to make the process easy.

With today’s technology, making recordings of public meetings readily available to voters and others is the least anyone committed to government transparency can do.

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