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Thursday, February 14, 2008

Sanford, Rex look past voucher dispute, focus on charter schools
Posted on Wed, Feb. 13, 2008
Associate Editor

PERHAPS THE most distressing thing about the whole school voucher push is the way it has insinuated itself into every discussion about education. Even the most routine proposal becomes a proxy for the voucher fight, every vote parsed over what it says about where the Legislature is headed.

The result is that for five years now, we’ve been paralyzed, unable to have a meaningful, much less fruitful, discussion about how to address the problems that will face our state whether we have vouchers or not. Problems like how to provide poor kids in poor schools as good a shot at a good education as well-off kids in well-off schools.

I believe that most people who think vouchers are a good idea find this as distressing as those of us who oppose vouchers because like us, most of them also believe the state has an obligation to run the best public school system it can.

So I am delighted to be able to report that in one small area, the warring camps have put down their slings and arrows and are working together, diligently, on an education initiative. Not a transformative initiative. But one that could move us a tiny bit in the direction of better educating the next generation.

I wrote about the genesis of this dialogue back in the fall, when the men who have become the public faces of the battle Gov. Mark Sanford and Education Superintendent Jim Rex made nice before a roomful of witnesses during the governor’s annual budget hearings.

Much has happened since then, thanks in no small part to the efforts of Sanford Chief of Staff Tom Davis, the most level-headed person in the administration, the guy who joined the team because he believed in Mark Sanford and his good-government ideas not because he was a groupie of the governor’s loopy political ideology. There have been meetings and memos and agreements on reforms both sides are ready to push to improve our charter school law.

Let’s be clear: Charter schools are not the answer to what ails South Carolina’s schools. Like many other ideas, they can be a part of that answer. At their best, charter schools are laboratories of innovation; freed from many regulations, they have the flexibility to experiment with new ways to teach students. Because their governance is parent- and teacher-centered, they encourage a level of parental involvement that surpasses that of even the most dedicated parents in regular public schools.

And the charter movement includes safeguards to limit the downside: Unlike the private schools that would receive public funding under the voucher and tuition tax credit proposals that have been offered in South Carolina, charters have to take all comers. They have to administer and report the same tests as regular public schools, meet the same education standards. (Dr. Rex has also made no secret that he sees the growth of charter schools as a way to take some of steam out of the voucher movement.)

But a lot of public education supporters remain, at best, cool to the idea of charter schools; there are even some legislators who still seem unable to distinguish charter schools from vouchers. What the two ideas have in common is the danger of sucking all the best students with the most motivated parents out of regular public schools, leaving behind a dispirited band of children whose parents either can’t or won’t help and encourage them the most difficult children to teach, and the children who most need a top-flight education.

It is because of those concerns and in some cases some less-noble concerns about personal power that our law has some rough spots that make starting and running a charter school more difficult than it should be. One of the biggest impediments to charter schools is facilities, and so the Sanford/Rex proposal would give charters dibs on renting state-owned property and extend their life, from five to 10 years, to increase their ability to attract start-up funding. The plan also would increase funding for state-chartered schools, which receive less money per student than locally chartered schools; and give the schools more financial flexibility.

Mr. Davis says the changes would take back some of the concessions that education groups “extracted” in return for the last legislative attempt to encourage charter schools, and he expressed optimism that “if Dr. Rex and Gov. Sanford are together on this, we can get it done.” Dr. Rex describes the initiative as an opportunity to expand a movement that has “the potential to implement innovative practices that can be replicated by schools throughout the state.”

There likely will be some points of contention as ideas get transformed into legislation, and agreements between the governor and the superintendent get tweaked by legislators with ideas of their own. But the proposal stands a chance of breathing some new life into the charter school movement.

Far more important than that, it gives us hope that there is life beyond or at least alongside the distracting and destructive voucher wars.

Ms. Scoppe can be reached at or at (803) 771-8571.

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