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Friday, February 8, 2008

S.C. Senate candidates split over school vouchers
By Matt Garfield ·
Published 02/08/08 - 12:00 AM |

INDIAN LAND -- The upper reaches of York and Lancaster counties are among the most reliably Republican parts of South Carolina. Hoping to make inroads, Democrat Mandy Powers Norrell is pinning her bid for the state Senate on a lightning rod issue that she hopes will transcend party lines: school vouchers.

Norrell opposes them. Her opponent, Republican state Rep. Mick Mulvaney, voted for a voucher bill last year. That's a contrast that will be hotly debated as these young, charismatic candidates jockey to replace the retiring Republican Sen. Greg Gregory in District 16.

There's at least one more thing Norrell wants voters to know about her opponent: He sends his children to private school in Charlotte.

"It's difficult to support our public schools, or even know what's going on in them, if they're not good enough for your own children," she said earlier this week.

Mulvaney, who is Catholic, makes no apologies for sending his triplets to St. Matthew Catholic School in the Ballantyne area. Finnegan, James and Caroline are in second grade.

"How that's relevant is up for voters to decide," Mulvaney said. "My wife and I made a decision a long time ago to send our kids to Catholic school, and that's where they're going to go. I don't pick my kids' schools based on whether it's good or bad for me politically."

The exchange offers an early glimpse into a contest likely to grow more intense as the November election approaches. It pits "old Lancaster" in Norrell against "new Lancaster" in Mulvaney, who lives in the northern, suburban-minded Indian Land area just across the state line from Charlotte.

A real estate developer, Mulvaney, 40, won election to the state House last year. Since then, he's aligned himself with Gov. Mark Sanford and has earned praise from state Speaker Bobby Harrell as an up-and-comer in GOP circles.

Norrell, 34, is a bankruptcy lawyer who has never held elected office. She grew up in Lancaster as the daughter of two former Springs employees, Carl and Beverly Blackmon Powers. Her children, Teddy and Emma, attend Lancaster public schools.

When then-presidential candidate John Edwards visited town last month, Norrell earned some praise of her own. She was introduced as the "Daisy Duke of Lancaster" by former Georgia Rep. Ben Jones, famous for playing Cooter on TV's "The Dukes of Hazzard."

Do vouchers sway voters?
The race should help to determine whether so-called school choice is a galvanizing political issue in Fort Mill, where many locals are fierce advocates for their highly-regarded school district.

Opponents contend that vouchers divert money from public schools and mostly benefit parents who already are sending their children to private schools.

Supporters counter that competition forces all schools to improve. They argue the state's education system is in need of major changes and say tuition tax credits -- another term for school choice -- offers a fresh direction.

In explaining his position, Mulvaney said that a half-dozen votes on school choice bills were taken last year. He supported all except one. It was the only proposal that he believes would've been bad for Fort Mill -- an open enrollment plan that required, in part, for children outside district boundaries to be provided slots in local classrooms. The bill was defeated.

"For some people, vouchers are the be-all and end-all of the debate," Mulvaney said. "Those people are doing a great disservice to the parents and teachers in this state. It cannot be the only issue."

Norrell said she considers the voucher concept as a threat that can't be ignored.
"That's the reason I decided to run," she said. "This is a threshold election because the voucher proponents have really gotten a toehold in the Legislature. To me, it's a no-brainer."

Norrell held a kickoff event last month at Discovery School on Dunlap Street, where her children attend. Mulvaney is planning his own event in the next few weeks.

Matt Garfield • 329-4063

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