Rex unveils scaled-back version of state school-choice proposal

COLUMBIA -- South Carolina's 85 school systems would not be forced to open their borders to transfer students under a scaled-back version of school choice that state Superintendent Jim Rex unveiled Wednesday.

Rex told a gathering of educators meeting in Columbia that he'll back legislation directing districts to come up with "at least one cross-district choice" but "implementation would be at the discretion of local school boards."

South Carolinians "understand this is not some kind of fad or public relations gimmick," Rex said. "The time has come for public schools to offer more curriculum options for students and their parents, and I want to get that process started as quickly as possible."

Rex's announcement is the opening salvo in what could be another protracted debate in the 2008 General Assembly session, which opens in January.

Allies of Gov. Mark Sanford have campaigned to get the Legislature to approve financial incentives or tax breaks for parents who send their children to private schools or who educate them at home. School-choice advocates say children should not have to attend public schools with persistently low test scores and ratings.

"Without a private school component, there is not an impetus for the public schools to improve," said Randy Page, who heads South Carolinians for Responsible Government, a pro-choice lobbying group. "For children in small districts where all of the schools are failing, that still leaves them with absolutely no choice."

When lawmakers return to work in January, they will find a bill that encourages districts to be more innovative in designing curriculums and instructional programs in public schools. Among those are Montessori, single-gender and intensive foreign-language instruction programs.

Rex had the Legislature's backing on a similar choice plan this year. But after Sanford vetoed the bill, the House of Representatives declined to override it and handed the state schools chief a major legislative defeat during his first year in office.

Among House members who opposed that plan was Rep. Ted Pitts, R-Lexington, who stood with Rex on Wednesday to announce he would sponsor the new legislation.

Rex's initial proposal would have required public schools to accept students from neighboring districts. That provision turned out to be a deal-breaker for some lawmakers.

Pitts said he was concerned taxpayers in high-performing districts like those he represents around Lake Murray would have had to pay to educate students from other districts.

The new legislation calls for every school district to form a "public school choice committee" that would be responsible for developing "at least one cross-district choice within three years" of the law taking effect.

The panel would present its ideas to the local school board, which in turn would forward choice proposals to the state Department of Education.

Ashley Landess of the S.C. Policy Council, another group that supports private school choice, said, "This doesn't sound like it provides choice to any children. It doesn't open more seats in good schools for kids who are trapped in failing schools."

The bill also contains language, Pitts said, that would require the state to pay for transportation of students who opt to leave their neighborhood public school for one in another community. Pitts said he could not project how much that might cost.