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What agenda could possibly unite these political odd couples – Liberal Democrat Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee and Conservative Republican Sens. Ted Cruz. Newt Gingrich and Al Sharpton? Support for the rapidly expanding world of education options.
As we just celebrated during National School Choice Week, each of these leaders is part of a bi-partisan groundswell of advocates for evidence-based school choice programs, both public and private.
Far more than vouchers, school choice in its truest form includes as many options as the needs of children are unique: high-quality traditional schools; public charters, magnet or virtual schools; open enrollment between traditional school districts; private school scholarship and tax credit programs; Education Savings Accounts; home schooling and more.
Based on a monopolistic model of learning designed for a heavily agrarian economy, the structure of our current public education system has remained largely unchanged since the 19th century. While this system still works for some, it is failing to equip far too many of our children with the basic skills they need in the fast-paced economy of the future.
The facts are unforgiving: America leads the world in education spending yet lags in academic achievement, falling behind more than a dozen other industrialized countries in math and literacy.
Our research shows that right here in South Carolina, fewer than half of our low-income students can read at basic or better levels by the end of third grade, the pivotal point when they transition from learning to read to reading to learn.
Over the last decade, our students with special needs have lost more ground in reading and math than students from any other state in the country.
Too many left behind
We are currently leaving far too many of our children behind and robbing them of opportunity to succeed in school and ultimately life. The good news: the power to change all this is in our hands. Around the country, innovating states and bold policy leaders are showing the way as they empower more and more parents with customized choices for their child’s education.
These choices take many forms, including strong, accountable public charter and online schools and private tax credit scholarships for students with special needs or who come from families which otherwise could not afford to access high-quality options.
Or newer ideas like Education Savings Accounts that create maximum flexibility for parents to buy textbooks, hire a tutor, enroll their children in online classes, pay private school tuition, or even save for future college expenses.
What are the results where these options are being tried? Study after study has shown that expanded education choice has increased high school graduation and college attendance, boosted scores in critical core subjects like reading and math, and led to parents who are satisfied that their children are enjoying high-quality education in a safe environment.
Over the last decade, Florida became one of the lead policy innovators, enacting robust school choice programs, which have contributed to students most in need of a helping hand making the greatest strides in achievement.
In fact, Florida’s low-income students now outscore the entire student population of South Carolina on fourth-grade reading.
The Sunshine State’s minority students – once lagging well behind their peers in the Palmetto State – have leapfrogged ahead. All this while spending less money per student than we do in South Carolina.
But the best news: a rising tide lifts all boats. Students in traditional public schools are thriving as never before, debunking the myth that more school choices damage public education. The inescapable truth is that where education choice grows, schools and student achievement flourish across the board.
To quote former Gov. Jeb Bush who led Florida’s education transformation, it’s time for us to “fundamentally rethink how we define public education, paying for results wherever they occur rather than paying a single provider regardless of results.”
Despite our challenges, this is an exciting time for education in South Carolina. New conversations are happening between businesses, education leaders and local communities about how to create the education system of the future.
Right here in the Palmetto State, parents have more options now than they have ever had, including a brand new tax credit scholarship program for our students with special needs.
But our work is far from done. School choice is changing lives across the country and provides a clear roadmap forward to address the education needs of South Carolina students.
I hope you’ll join us in this growing, bi-partisan movement of students, parents, educators and community leaders. Working together, we can empower parents with new choices and inspire students with the hope that their zip code does not determine their destiny.
Ellen Weaver is president & CEO of Palmetto Policy Forum, a non-profit organization committed to policy entrepreneurship, consensus-building and transformative solutions to South Carolina’s challenges. Learn more about the Forum’s initiatives at www.palmettopolicy.org.