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Do we want to theorize or reform education?

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In education, as in everything else, there is a big difference between theory and practice. This difference is particularly noticeable among those who say they support school choice but don’t want that choice to extend beyond government schools.  Let’s talk about practice. In Georgia, 3,000 students with special needs are now attending independent schools that meet their specific learning needs. Each school was selected by that child’s own parents through a school choice program launched in 2007.
In Florida, more than 22,000 students enrolled in independent schools through a similar policy enacted in 1999. Hundreds more are signing up for programs just launched in North Carolina and Louisiana. In theory, some education officials and lawmakers acknowledge that competition would push state schools to do a better job, but still want to limit choices to within the same school districts they claim would benefit most from the competition.
In practice, 38,000 low-income children in Florida, and 40,000 in Pennsylvania, are taking advantage of tax credit-funded scholarships to attend the independent school of their parents’ choice. This has given public schools in those states a tremendous motivation to improve instructional programs. Even with the resulting competition, public school budgets in those states have not suffered, because – like South Carolina – very little funding for K-12 education is allocated on a per-student basis.
School budgets have not been harmed, but there is published evidence that the competition created by school choice has spurred measurable student achievement in those public schools. These hard and fast results are encouraging other states to implement school choice programs. A newer program in neighboring Georgia will support 2,000 students this year.
In theory, standardized tests and government self-reporting of scores on state report cards offer real accountability for the quality of government schools. In practice, accountability is more than just an idea for the 380 independent schools scattered throughout South Carolina.
Parents who pay their children’s tuition can pull their children out and send them elsewhere if the school isn’t providing the child with the right instruction. That’s accountability that allows action. And yes, that includes the estimated 15,000 low-income children already enrolled in independent schools in South Carolina.
These schools are already held to state diploma and graduation requirements, and use tests like the Stanford and Iowa that are cheaper and more stringent than either PACT or PASS. The Diplomas Count report calculates that between 20,000 and 30,000 public high school students fail to graduate each year in South Carolina. In the same eight-year period, funding of the schools has risen from just under $10,000 per student to more than $12,000. Statewide, that’s about $9 billion annually in taxpayers’ money for the K-12 schools. State lawmakers now have the opportunity to answer a vital question: Do we continue theorizing about improving education in South Carolina, or do we implement a reform that has benefited other states in actual practice? The answer should be very clear.