York County and Fort Mill (where I live) have an enviable school system. It is a major reason why my family moved here rather than Charlotte. Quality public education should be available to every child in America; it is an essential part of what makes this country what it was meant to be. Education is the foundation for the future of everyone whether they have children in the schools, have grown children or have no children.
South Carolina is close to eliminating quality public education in York County. That is not an overstatement or alarmist histrionics. Disguised as lower taxes, Gov. Mark Sanford and the state legislature are in the process of dragging the higher-performing school districts down to the mediocrity that plagues the rest of the state in most national measurements of effectiveness. Their goal seems to be to change the state motto to "At Least We're Not Alabama or Mississippi" (this motto sounds much more profound in Latin).
Recently lowered property taxes in York County and statewide eliminated local funding for elementary, middle and high schools. Funding now comes from a 1-cent increase in state sales tax. Without questioning whether the sales tax could be a reliable source for schools under any economic conditions, it is obviously inadequate under current conditions. The Fort Mill district is making do with emergency funds and other stopgap measures. However, those maneuvers only can delay the ultimate impact of this dilemma. The final result is unavoidable without changes; and yes a solution requires money.
But something more harmful seems to be at work here.
Even if the U.S. economy were robust today and into the foreseeable future, the net effect of the funding change places our children's education in the hands of partisan officeholders in Columbia. Is it reasonable to think that legislators from lower-performing districts will allocate funds allowing Fort Mill or Clover to have stronger schools than in their districts? Will voters in Charleston, for instance, want to subsidize the population growth in York County and provide new schools for increasing numbers of students locally? Anyone who believes that dollars will be forthcoming from jurisdictions with weaker schools than our local system probably also trusts in Santa and the Easter Bunny.
So who does benefit from these circumstances? The answer lies with the infamous Howard Rich, one of the largest contributors to S.C. campaigns since 2006. He has made campaign contributions to Mark Sanford and others statewide, including Mick Mulvaney locally. Mr. Rich is the New York real estate millionaire who wants to find a jurisdiction to use as a laboratory to test his obsession with school vouchers. This is where the ostensible plan is either brilliant (in a Snidely Whiplash way) or shameful (in a regular non-millionaire person kind of way).
South Carolina has defeated school voucher legislation -- most recently in 2007. However, it looks like Mr. Rich and his political cronies had a back-door plan. Legislative results could be very different if all public schools in the state were consistently inadequate. This law would be a lot more appealing if circumstances were properly manipulated. And after our schools muddle along for a few years without enough money to meet the educational aspirations of concerned parents, more in the state will search for options. This creates an opportunity for Mr. Rich and his scheming.
Vouchers and tax incentives for private schools are only effective for families above a certain income level; minimal income jobs rarely allow the luxury of discretionary spending on tuition and such. As a result, with a voucher system, public school populations would become poorer and more heavily minority. Sadly but truly, schools with more poor students and more minorities become less attractive to some wealthier families and some white families; these become more receptive to private school alternatives. A vicious circle evolves regarding public schools. As fewer families are vested in the workings of public schools, funding becomes less and less important to more and more voters.
This scenario is intolerable -- insulting any sense of what is right and fair. Our schools are an irreplaceable asset. Once schools have been devalued, bringing back their previous levels of excellence would cost dearly if it could be accomplished at all. We have to tell Gov. Sanford to stop using our children to bolster his Republican street credibility. Sanford, Mulvaney and every other politician in South Carolina who took tainted, voucher-based contributions needs to give Howard Rich's money back and to do what is right.