Opinion Columns & Blogs

Foxes given henhouse key

Biologists recently theorized that the spine of female humans evolved in a way to keep them from toppling over while pregnant.

This "theory," no doubt, will be challenged by Christian conservatives who will argue that because evolution is only a "theory," science courses taught in public schools should give proper credit to God for designing women so that they could remain upright while in the family way.

The likelihood of South Carolina being subjected to such Scopes-like scenarios increased last week after the State Board of Education chose as its future chair a member who once opposed a biology textbook because it didn't mention Creative Design.

Much has been made of the fact that Kristin Maguire, who will take office in a year, home-schools her kids. She says that has nothing to do with qualifications to lead a body that approves statewide school curricula and sets teacher standards.

Gov. Mark Sanford, likewise, defends his decision to send his sons to private school as being irrelevant to his advocacy of tax breaks for private school families.

Interestingly, Maguire and Sanford are both tied to South Carolinians for Responsible Government, which, in turn, gets support from out-of-state interests bent on funding private education at public expense.

What's curious is how such people can be elevated to important posts when polls consistently show that most South Carolinians support public education and oppose vouchers or tax credits to pay for private education.

Such efforts are the result of an unholy alliance of the religious right wing and libertarians, who see all government as an infringement on freedom. Even though Sanford isn't closely identified with the religious right, his half-baked libertarian ideology coincides with that group's disdain for secular education.

One shudders to think of the fate of public schools had Karen Floyd, GOP candidate for state superintendent of education, a Sanford ally, not lost to Jim Rex during the last election. Since taking office, Rex has done his level best to undercut the anti-public education faction by pushing "school choice" options within the state system. Earlier this year, Sanford vetoed a bill to accomplish that end.

Ironically, Maguire's election might strengthen Rex's hand, if for no other reason than it might sound the alarm to those with the most at stake, the families of 90 percent of South Carolina's school-age children and those citizens responsible for educating them. If this doesn't wake them up to the fact that the foxes have keys to the henhouse, nothing will.

South Carolina might be facing a perfect storm when it comes to the future of public education. Not only are private education advocates occupying leadership positions, but this state also may be about to enter a prolonged economic downturn.

Too few South Carolinians understand that decisions made in Columbia impact our schools. How, for example, does the State Board of Education, whose members are chosen by the General Assembly, relate to the State Department of Education, which is led by a popularly elected superintendent of education? Then there's the Education Oversight Commission, created to ensure schools improve according to standards laid out under the S.C. Education Accountability Act.

None of these agencies, however, actually operates schools; that responsibility rests with members of local school boards, the elected officials closest to the classroom.

And even if a parent or teacher understood the complex chemistry by which state and local education bureaucracies interact, they may not appreciate that decisions made by the General Assembly affect schools. For example, when legislators adopted "property tax reform" in 2006, they simultaneously crippled local control of school funding and made schools precariously dependent on the most unreliable source of public revenue, the sales tax.

During the last recession, the General Assembly couldn't come up with enough money to fully fund the basic per-student formula of the Education Finance Act, and that was before lawmakers assumed responsibility for local school operations. What happens when sales taxes go south?

Until public school parents and teachers wake up to the fact that it makes a difference whom we elect -- especially to the General Assembly -- don't expect the situation to improve.