Just a Few Years More

February 13, 2014

Inside Insight

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ariail just a few more years

In 1984 Governor Dick Riley’s Education Improvement Act was passed, with the promise of better education for a mere penny increase in the sales tax. At the risk of oversimplifying the results, the plan didn’t work. Our education system is not better and no one with a conscience could possibly claim otherwise. And yet politicians continue to assure us that if we just try their “plans,” we’ll finally see the success we’ve been promised.

There is no shortage of “big ideas” when it comes to education reform. We’ve already discussed and researched and debated pretty much all of them. Politicians don’t need to offer better ideas or new programs. They need to demonstrate the courage and leadership to implement the reforms we know will work. Real reform means upsetting the bureaucratic apple cart that is our education establishment: the lack of will on the part of politicians to do that is the real reason education has not improved in our state.

Here’s what hasn’t changed since SCPC started researching education reform in the 1980s: administration costs are higher than classroom costs, politicians are funding programs instead of directing dollars and decisions to the classroom, there are too many school districts, parents have little choice about where their children attend school – or what they learn when they get there – and no matter how much money we spend it isn’t putting a dent in our low student achievement.

After 27 years of research here at SCPC, the recommendations haven’t changed much. For example, we know that consolidating school districts would save money, and that doing so wouldn’t affect the schools themselves. In 2004, I chaired the School District Consolidation Committee, which was charged by the legislature with examining the potential cost savings from consolidation. We found that consolidation would certainly save money, and that there was no evidence that larger districts suffered from consolidation of administration. Furthermore – and this was especially interesting – we could find no rationale for the creation of so many school districts in our state. Consolidation makes sense, and indeed many of our state’s larger counties have one district. What makes no sense is having as many as 85 separate districts for 46 counties.

There is no good reason not to consolidate districts, and yet there is still resistance to doing away with the extra administration. The same is true for school choice – no good reason not to let parents have at least some control over their education dollars and yet still SC politicians refuse to pass a substantive choice plan. The research on school choice over decades (we’ve done quite a bit of it here at SCPC) shows no negative impact on public education anywhere in the world from choice programs. If anything, the evidence shows improvement in the entire system as a result of choice. In fact, Clemson economist Dr. Cotton Lindsey conducted a detailed study for the Policy Council a few years ago that disproved one of the most common criticisms leveled against school choice: Not only would public schools not lose money from a choice plan; they would actually have more dollars per child to spend.

Even the money we already spend could be used better if it were directed to the schools rather than run through programs created by the legislature. In 2007 SCPC brought in one of the nation’s top experts on school funding to analyze our state’s funding formula. Dr. Bryan Hassel examined in great detail every program we funded and how we funded it, and offered clear recommendations for simplifying our formula to ensure that schools had control over the dollars while ensuring that extra dollars were provided for low-income and special needs students, as well as those gifted and talented.

And yet those recommendations have been ignored, along with those to consolidate districts and give parents control of education dollars. Clear solutions with the research to back them up have been dismissed in favor of the same system that has continually failed our students.

We know that money alone doesn’t fix education, and that the money we do spend can work much better for students when it’s directed to the classroom rather than specific programs controlled out of Columbia. We know that school choice programs result in higher achievement when nothing else has worked. And yet despite all the evidence, our politicians simply refuse to change the system.

Ultimately, the problem in our schools is the same as the larger problem in our state. Politicians have too much power, and there are too many people invested in preserving the status quo at the expense of children. Unfortunately, that may have to change before anything else will. Those of us who’ve been fighting for education reform for the better part of two decades have seen most of the same ideas recycled over and over. It’s time to put the good ones to work.