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Tuesday, April 8, 2008

School choice | Bill to make legislative debut
Posted on Tue, Apr. 08, 2008
Rex worried first airing late in session will stifle proposal
Legislation that would compel public school systems to provide more instructional options at all grade levels gets its first and possibly only airing today at the State House, a scenario that troubles the states’ schools chief.

“I’m very concerned we’re finally getting to it, but it is late in the session,” S.C. Superintendent Jim Rex said. “I’ll be very disappointed if the Legislature does not support this.”

But, the newest version of the “public school choice” bill, sponsored by Rep. Ted Pitts, R-Lexington, and two other lawmakers, contains a provision the state Department of Education fulfilled on its own Monday.

The agency unveiled a new Web site listing all current school choice options offered in each of the state’s 85 districts.

“For the first time,” Rex said, “South Carolinians are just a mouse-click away from information on every program option with the public school system.”

All a parent has to do is type in a school, district or program name and the Web site’s search engine will produce a list of available options.

Having the ability to pick a special instruction program, Rex said, “will be a new experience for a lot of parents who aren’t used to making choices.”

Since taking office in January 2007, one of Rex’s priorities has been talking about alternative ways public schools deliver instruction. He advocates expansion of “public school choice” options to counter efforts to underwrite vouchers or tax credits for families who send their children to private schools.

Rex maintains public schools can offer more instructional options subject to public scrutiny and accountability, while his critics insist those programs are available to few students.

“We get really frustrated when we hear people talk about ‘public transfer’ when they talk about school choice,” said Neil Mellen of South Carolinians for Responsible Government, which supports giving parents incentives to send children to private school.

“If you have the money, you can move to a better district or drive to a better public school, or opt to leave the public school system by sending your child to a private school,” Mellen said. “People of lesser means have few choices.”

A public school choice law had legislative support a year ago, but was vetoed by Gov. Mark Sanford. The veto was upheld when too few lawmakers voted to override it.

Rex scaled back his vision of public school choice for 2008, dropping a requirement that would obligate schools to accept students from neighboring districts. Pitts submitted the proposed bill in early December.

“It has taken a while to get a hearing,” Pitts said. “The (House education committee) chairman decided when it was appropriate to take it up. The goal is to pass this bill out of the subcommittee, the full committee and on through the House.”

Bob Walker, the Spartanburg Republican who chairs that committee, said Monday “nobody has pushed for this bill other than Rep. Pitts. I don’t see a lot of support for it.”

“There’s nothing in the legislation that cannot be done right now,” Walker said. “I don’t see a need for (it) if districts can offer choices without legislation.”

School choice might be a victim of election-year jitters, Rex said.
“I suspect some (lawmakers) are concerned about not wanting to have to take a vote on something that might be controversial,” he said.

Reach Robinson at (803) 771-8482.
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