Republicans Back Away from School Flexibility Bill

March 23, 2012

Investigative Reports

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SchoolkidsSupport for school choice apparently only goes so far among some South Carolina Republicans, as in “it’s OK as long as it doesn’t interfere with constituents’ bottom line.”

For example, Rep. Alan Clemmons, R-Horry, is co-sponsoring several school choice bills, including one that would give a tax deduction for home-school student expenses and another that would create a revolving loan program to help fund construction of charter schools.

However, Clemmons is not so keen on a proposal that would give South Carolina school districts the option of starting their school year up to a week earlier.

Rep. Ralph Norman, R-York, introduced the latter (H. 4953) earlier this month, with the idea that it would give schools time to start and end the first semester before Christmas break.

A similar bill, S. 1314, has been introduced in the Senate by Greg Gregory, R-Lancaster.

“This would help the students by allowing them to take these tests before the Christmas holidays and it would help the teachers in that they wouldn’t have to go back and reteach the material on the tests again after the holidays,” Norman said.

The bill was introduced on March 6 and quickly gained more than 30 co-sponsors.

However, Norman said he was approached a short time later by Clemmons, who told him the Myrtle Beach tourism community had an issue with the bill.

“His argument was that moving up the start of the school year will hurt tourism, and if you hurt tourism you’ll hurt the education system because there won’t be as much tax money coming into the state,” Norman said.

Perhaps not coincidentally, high school-age employees of beach businesses would have to quit work one week earlier if school starting dates were moved up.

Within a day of the bill being introduced, 18 legislators – all Republicans – requested their names be removed as co-sponsors.

Legislators listed as having had their names pulled from the bill on March 7 were: Jay Lucas, R-Darlington; Murrell Smith, R-Sumter; Bill Sandifer, R-Oconee; Mike Gambrell, R-Anderson; Don Bowen, R-Anderson; Greg Delleney, R-Chester; Phillip Lowe, R-Florence; Shannon Erickson, R-Beaufort; Steve Parker, R-Spartanburg; Gene Pinson, R-Greenwood; Chip Huggins, R-Lexington; Tom Young, R-Aiken; Tommy Stringer, R-Greenville; Joshua Putnam, R-Anderson; Bill Taylor, R-Aiken; Peter McCoy, R-Charleston; Bill Hixon, R-Aiken; and Edward Southard, R-Berkeley.

Since then, two more Republicans have asked to have their names removed as co-sponsors: Steve Moss, R-Cherokee; and Mark Willis, R-Greenville.

As it stands now, a bill that once had 36 sponsors is down to 16.

Clemmons did not respond to calls from The Nerve for this article.

South Carolina school districts had some leeway as to when they started their school year until a few years ago. But in 2006 a law was passed that forbids schools from opening before the third Monday in August.

Tourism interests from Myrtle Beach had pushed for the law for several years before it was passed, Norman said.

“We were very disappointed when the bill was passed because it took the flexibility away regarding when the school year started,” said Elaine Baker, director of information services for York School District 3.

The advantage of being able to move the start of the school year up by a week is that schools could take semester-end tests before the Christmas holidays, Baker said.

“Students and teachers could end the semester without having to worry about exams over Christmas,” she said.

Mick Zais, the state superintendent of education, has not taken a stand on Norman’s bill, according to department spokesman J.W. Ragley.

However, the state Board of Education has approved requests by individual schools to move their up starting dates, he added.

Clemmons, along with many of the Republicans who originally sponsored Norman’s bill but then took their names off of it, supports several other pieces of school choice legislation this session.

For example, Clemmons’ name is on H. 4894, which would allow “a $2,000 tax deduction for expenses paid for a student to attend a home school, a $4,000 tax deduction for tuition, textbook and other fees, and school-related transportation paid for a student to attend an independent school, and a $1,000 deduction for public school students to attend a school district which is not their school district of residence.”

Other legislators joining him as co-sponsors of the bill include McCoy, Parker, Bowen, Erickson, Taylor, Murrell Smith, Stringer, Lowe, Southard, Delleney, Hixon, Lucas, Pinson, Putnam, Young and Huggins.

Clemmons is also a co-sponsor of the South Carolina Educational Opportunity Act (H. 3407), which seeks to allow “maximum freedom to parents and independent schools to respond to and provide for the educational needs of children without governmental control,” and also to “enable taxpayers to receive an income tax credit for a portion of tuition paid for a qualifying student to attend an independent school.”

Other co-sponsors include Stringer, Bowen, Delleney, Hixon, Lowe, McCoy, Murrell Smith, Taylor and Lucas.

And Clemmons is a co-sponsor of H. 3241, which, among other things, would create a charter school revolving loan program to assist with the construction, purchase, renovation and maintenance of public charter school facilities. Sandifer, Erickson, Lucas and Stringer have also placed their names on the bill.

Norman said he’s frustrated by legislators who hold themselves out as being for school choice but then would fail to support legislation that simply gives districts the option of moving up the school year by a single week.

“I can understand the argument against having random starting dates for every school district, but this doesn’t do that,” he said.

Norman has seen the issue from both sides, as well.

His family owns a hotel in Rock Hill, so he’s familiar with difficulties those in the hospitality industry face in trying to retain employees, and his three daughters are or have been elementary school teachers.

Reach Dietrich at (803) 779-5022 ext. 110, or kevin@thenerve.org.