Editorial: Make sure SC taxpayers get their money’s worth from the school voucher program | Editorials

We still believe that the SC Legislature must finally take seriously solving the problems with the public schools it owns rather than paying parents to abandon these schools – cracking down on school boards that are more interested in preservation jobs than education, giving principals the tools to attract the best teachers and get rid of the underperforming ones, for example, but our legislators seem determined to dump our tax dollars on private schools.

The only saving grace is that the competing versions of House and Senate voucher legislation each contain provisions that can mitigate the damage – assuming negotiators make the right choices in a series of compromises that will determine the final shape. of S.935 which they are asking the two bodies to sign next week.

Both the House and Senate made major changes to their proposals during the indoor 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 best provisions survived the mostly ignored debate two days before the Legislative Assembly adjourned its regular session last month. And some of the Senate’s worst provisions survived its debate in March.

Both versions propose funding so-called 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 excess 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.

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The most important difference is that the Senate version requires students who receive vouchers to take the same standardized tests that we require students in our public schools. These tests were designed to help us hold our public schools accountable for the work they do with our taxes, and so obviously we should have the same accountability provision when giving our taxes to private schools.

So we should require private schools to administer state-mandated tests to all of their students, just as we do for pre-K programs that accept public funding. But the Senate version is much better than the House version, which allows private schools to choose the standardized tests they want and therefore gives the people who pay the bills – the taxpayers – no way to compare the quality of schools.

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The Senate version also does a better job of targeting vouchers for poor children who lawmakers have always said they want to help the most. Again, that’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 is some overlap, but about 100,000 of South Carolina’s 720,000 public school students have IEPs; they include not only people with intellectual or developmental disabilities, but also those with attention deficit disorder and other ‘specific learning difficulties’. For every wealthy student who gets a voucher, there is potentially another poor kid who doesn’t.

At first glance, the House version appears to be more narrowly targeted at poor children, because with two small exceptions, it appears to be limited to Medicaid-eligible students. But as Rep. Russell Ott pointed out during the House debate, if poor students don’t claim the 5,000 available places, then all students — including the children of millionaires — can claim them.

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Admittedly, we don’t expect many millionaires to try to suck up the money, but if poor parents don’t jump on the program in the first year, it’s easy to see a scenario where more income savvy parents high could grab the slots – and once they get a voucher, they can keep it until their child, and any additional children they have, graduate from high school. Why on earth, when you say you want to give poor kids the same educational choices richer kids have always had, would you even allow that to happen?

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

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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 Department of Education. The broader allocation not only requires state officials to be involved in individual decisions, but also opens the door to abuse, and some of the safeguards required by the expanded definition render parts of the program unenforceable.

Of course, it also makes sense to take the House’s approach of rolling this out as a three-year pilot program rather than creating a new, permanent program. We are under no illusions that the Legislature will close the program after three years, but pilot status makes it easier to adapt to changing circumstances – including the possibility that the SC Supreme Court may rule that the program as it is designed violates the state constitution.

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