Opinion

SC school choice ‘mistake’ looks familiar

The House passes legislation that could expand a private-school subsidy program from 1,300 students to 500,000, and what’s the response? Oops?

We didn’t mean to do that?

We didn’t realize we did that?

Where to begin?

Maybe it’s true that Rep. Kenny Bingham didn’t mean to make nearly every public school student in the state eligible for the “scholarships” that we let individuals and businesses provide rather than paying their state income taxes. After all, Bingham tends to be pretty straight-up about what he’s trying to do, even when it’s a really bad idea, so I suspect that he would own up to it if he had managed to sneak through such a controversial and radical proposal.

But I just get this nagging feeling whenever I hear “oops” and “subsidize private schools” in the same sentence.

Perhaps because we’ve heard it so many times before. Perhaps because the efforts to pay parents to abandon the public schools and instead send their kids to private schools are always so much more – or less – than advertised.

Some Republicans have supported the idea of throwing tax dollars at private schools for as long as I’ve been covering the Legislature, but there were never any serious efforts until Mark Sanford ran for governor in 2002. Sanford talked a lot about creating a program to help poor children escape from failing public schools. But he also insisted that it was a boutique idea that only a handful of students would ever take advantage of.

Then he got elected, and rolled out his proposal. And it bore absolutely no resemblance to the “last-ditch option” he sold on the campaign trail. It wasn’t limited to students in “failing” public schools, and it wasn’t limited to poor students. In fact, it was available to any family with taxable income of less than $75,000 – which even today amounts to more than 90 percent of S.C. taxpayers. In fact, it wouldn’t have done poor kids any good, because their parents wouldn’t have made enough money to receive large enough tax credits to pay for them to go to private schools – even if they could afford to front the costs, which they couldn’t.

That problem – tax credits are of no use to the poor families supporters claim to want most to help – remained a problem until someone dreamed up the idea of adding in “scholarship-granting organizations,” which allows taxpayers to claim a dollar-for-dollar tax credit for any donations they give to these loosely regulated non-profit organizations, which in turn hand out scholarships. That is to say, the donors get to give to these organizations instead of paying their income taxes.

We all know what happens when some people don’t pay their income taxes: The rest of us pay, through either higher taxes or reduced state services. That is, the tax burden is shifted to us. And we have no say in the matter. That is, we are forced to subsidize private schools.

But I’m getting off track. The “scholarship-granting organizations” were actually a step toward making the legislation live up to its rhetoric about helping poor kids, and once they latched on to it, supporters really played up that idea.

Then a funny thing happened: In 2006, just as the House was about to debate that legislation, an amendment was quietly proposed that stripped out the scholarship-granting organizations and changed the bill back into the subsidize-well-off-kids proposal of earlier years. Or so it seemed.

After I exposed that proposal in an editorial, the leading private-choice advocates all went nuts. The amendment’s sponsor, Rep. Tracy Edge, told me he had never offered that amendment, had never even seen it. And I think he was being honest.

There was a lot of speculation about where the amendment could have come from and how the House clerk’s office could have accepted it from anyone other than the purported sponsor, and whether it was an honest mistake by legislative staffers or a sabotage effort or an effort to pull one over on the House. A lot of fingers were pointed at a lobbyist for one of the out-of-state organizations that have driven the subsidize-private-schools effort in our state, but no proof was ever offered.

Perhaps you see similarities between that episode and the latest one.

Perhaps that troubles you.

What troubles me is less the similarity than the difference.

The difference is that the 2006 proposal was exposed before the House even had a chance to vote on it. Even if I hadn’t discovered it and written about it, I’m confident that someone in the House would have paid enough attention to notice it during the debate – although those proposals are always extremely dense and convoluted – and it would have been defeated.

The 2015 proposal passed the House without anyone noticing. True, it has since been exposed, a Senate subcommittee has stripped it from the state budget, and House supporters have vowed to scale it back as they try to get it back into the budget.

But anyone who cares about public education, and public accountability, ought to be chilled that this measure got this far without anyone recognizing how expansive it is. It ought to remind us all that we have become too lackadaisical about this issue.

We have perhaps deluded ourselves into believing that those who want to throw tax dollars at unregulated private schools are satisfied now that we have agreed to throw just a few (million) tax dollars at unregulated private schools for special-needs students.

Perhaps we should recall that the out-of-state special interests that always have driven this effort have been quite candid about calling the special-needs program a mere first step toward their goal. That is: to force every one of us to subsidize those parents who choose to bypass the schools we all own and provide for them and instead send their children to unregulated, unaccountable private schools.

Cindi Scoppe can be reached at cscoppe@thestate.com or at (803) 771-8571.

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