Sanford Says Debate has Begun on School Choice

November 15, 2010

Investigative Reports

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The NerveTrevor Lightbody
Citizen Reporter

With less than three months to go in his final term as governor, Mark Sanford wasted little time when asked by The Nerve to name his biggest accomplishment in the area of public education: “The advancement of actual choice in South Carolina and the debate on choice in South Carolina.”

During Sanford’s nearly eight years in office, Act 274 (better known as the Charter School Bill) was passed. Although a statewide choice program still does not exist, South Carolina does offer some charter school options, including virtual schooling, as well as open enrollment for inter-district choice.

However, most important to Sanford was the increased discussion and debate he helped foster concerning school choice.

While Sanford admitted he would have liked to have seen South Carolina become the first state to offer full-scale school choice, he was able to temper his political expectations: “You plow the field before you plant it, plant it before you harvest it, and harvest it before you can sell it.”

School choice provides opportunities for parents to choose the best school for their children – whether it’s public, private, parochial or home-schooling, proponents tout.

In addition, the Foundation for Educational Choice lists the following as different types of school choice: school vouchers, tax-credit scholarship programs, personal tax credits and deductions, homeschooling, charter schools, virtual schooling and private schools.

Currently, across the Southeast only Georgia, Florida and Louisiana have school choice programs, and nationwide only 11 additional states offer choice programs, according to the Foundation for Educational Choice.

South Carolina, Sanford believes, is in a strong position to take school choice to the next level.

“South Carolina’s existing system is not working and the state can’t afford to continue bumping along 49th or 50th in SAT scores, all the while thinking more money is going to solve the problems,” Sanford said, adding that school choice represents a means to affect change.

The whole concept behind school choice is the creation of competition amongst the schools within a system. As of right now there is little competition because schools aren’t threatened with students leaving for better-performing institutions or schools being shut down.

“School choice is nothing more than a vehicle for imposing a market-based discipline within the education system,” Sanford said.

In the business world, companies are reluctant to change without the threat of a competitor coming in and taking away market share. Until such competitive forces are brought to bear on our state’s public schools, innovation is going to be hard to come by, he said.

In a monopolistic setting – such as exists throughout much of South Carolina – customers can get the product but there is no guarantee it will offer the best service or best price.

South Carolina cannot continue to allow generation after generation of students to fail to reach their potential and Sanford believes school choice is the best option to reach students both in this generation and the future.

According to pro-school choice group South Carolinians for Responsible Government, “No study of American public schools exposed to school choice has ever found a decrease in the academic performance of public school students. Ultimately, children benefit when public schools compete because public schools rise to the challenge of school choice by focusing on the bottom line: improving student achievement and responding to parental concerns.”

Information from The Foundation for Educational Choice supports this thought concerning the benefits of schools choice. Since the 1990s, studies have shown that school choice improves student achievement. In particular, nine random assignment studies found significant gains in academic achievement from school vouchers.

Also, studies in 2009 and 2010 have shown the positive impacts school choice creates for public schools.

In the 2009 study, Jay Green and Ryan Marsh of the University of Arkansas concluded in their paper examining the effects of school choice in Milwaukee that, “Milwaukee public schools are more attentive to the academic needs of students when those students have more opportunities to leave those schools.”

The 2010 study by David Figlio and Cassandra Hart from Northwestern University examining the effects of Florida’s Tax-Credit Scholarship Program found that policies that introduce competition to public schools spur improvements in public school students’ test scores.

“This work therefore helps inform a major policy debate regarding whether harnessing market forces is an effective way to help not only the students who enter the private education market, but also the students who remain behind in the public sector,” according to the Figlio and Hart study.

The findings from the above studies support the idea that school choice is a viable option to improving South Carolina’s education system, but it cannot be viewed as a panacea for all education problems.

Sanford stressed that the political process is incremental in nature. Even so, students in this state do not have the luxury of waiting for this incremental process to provide them with full scale choice in education. Instead of throwing together a new system, why not test pilot programs in the highest-need areas, he suggested.

Among programs Sanford mentioned was the Florida McKay Scholarship, which allows students with special requirements to attend a school that better meets their needs, be it private or public.

The idea is to employ a system which saves students who would normally fall through the cracks. Certain income stipulations and special-needs guidelines would have to be imposed so the system would target those who need help, according to Sanford.

The fact remains that South Carolina’s school system is struggling and the kids are the ones who are suffering, Sanford said. 

For decades the state has been trying to treat the problem with the same remedy and for decades we’ve come up short. Sanford said with the discussion on school choice finally under way, it’s crucial his successor pick up where he’s leaving off and keep the ball moving forward.

Trevor Lightbody is a student at the University of South Carolina. He can be reached at (803) 779-5022.