Educators fear fallout from school choice bill

Local school districts are worried about the impact of a school choice bill that went to the governor's office this week.

The bill allows parents to enroll their child in any public school in any district by the fall of 2009. No tuition would be required.

The plan was pushed by state Superintendent of Education Jim Rex, who said it gives parents more public school options.

"We have to be innovative, and there are school districts out there doing some things I think some of our low-performing schools could benefit from," Rex said earlier this month.

For years, several groups have pushed for more enrollment options for parents. One plan rejected by the Legislature this year would have given families financial help or incentives to enroll children in nonpublic schools.

Under the plan approved this week, school districts could turn down requests if they don't have enough space. But area districts fear that if the state is allowed to determine how many students a school can hold instead of the local districts, the results could mean larger classes and fewer opportunities for students who actually live in the district.

"I'm always concerned about the state legislating those types of issues instead of local units," said Rock Hill Superintendent Lynn Moody. "I do believe in local control. I believe that our board of education knows and understands more about what is best for our school district than the state does."

One fear district officials have about the bill is how it might affect student-teacher ratios.

"If the state allows students who don't live here to come to school here and that begins to have an impact on the student-teacher ratios for the students who do live here, or that it displaces a student who is about to move here, that could create some problems," said Bob Ormseth, spokesman for Fort Mill schools. "I think there's a lot out there that we don't know. That makes it hard for us to react, let alone plan."

York Superintendent Russell Booker also is worried about the bill's impact on school and class sizes, but another concern is that outside students would be using programs that his district's residents pay for.

Booker cited the district's competition cheerleading program and Montessori school as examples of offerings that district taxpayers provide for their students.

"You have communities who have made an investment through their tax dollars, who are committing those resources to having the quality of education that we want to have here," he said. "We need to look at those districts who might not be able to do some of those different things, and try to find a way to get them to where they need to be without compromising what's happening in some other school districts."

Several district officials said the bill presents logistical problems, such as determining who will transport students to schools in other districts. Some officials said they favor school choice programs within their districts, but don't like the idea of choice options extending beyond their borders.

Districts also fear what residents will think of funding the education of children who don't live in their district.

"Our biggest concern is we're growing and we're going to have to build new schools," said Greg Reid, Clover schools spokesman. "And we're concerned about how the community is going to feel about us educating students that don't live here. And when we need to go to them for bond referendums and ask them for more money to build more schools, we're afraid we might be negatively impacted because of that."