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Thursday, September 4, 2008

Trashing our schools for political gain

Representative James Smith has a guest editorial in Thursday's State Newspaper.  Click on the link below to take you to the paper. Most of his comments are below the link.

Posted on Thu, Sep. 04, 2008
Guest Columnist

Let’s be clear about the agenda of SCRG and its wealthy New York patron, Howard Rich, who has just poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into South Carolina’s legislative primaries in an effort to pass a school voucher plan.

SCRG and organizations like it want South Carolinians to believe that we pay far too much for things that don’t directly benefit us. Why, SCRG president Randy Page asks, should parents who send their children to private schools be “forced to pay for schools they don’t utilize”? After all, in his view, “South Carolina does not have any children of its own.”

The tactics SCRG consistently uses to advance its cause are objectionable, including the half-truths and outright lies about South Carolina’s schools evident in the column by Mr. Page that appeared recently in The State (“More spending won’t produce better education,” Aug. 4).

On the premise, apparently, that any lie can come to be accepted as truth if you repeat it often enough, Mr. Page contends that $11,480 is spent per student in South Carolina and that substantially less than half that amount is spent for instruction.

In fact, his figure covers not just state but also local and federal spending; the most recent figures show that the state of South Carolina spends around $8,159 per student — ranking 37th in public school spending among the 50 states and the District of Columbia.

The myth that less than half of all per-pupil funding goes for instruction has been debunked many times. Nearly 58 percent of South Carolina’s education budget directly supports teacher salaries, teacher assistant salaries and classroom materials.

Another 14 percent goes to programs that directly support students in other ways — guidance counselors, libraries and librarians, and extracurricular activities — that SCRG does not count as “instructional” because they don’t take place in a room with individual desks.

Transportation, food and building operations absorb 20 percent.

Only 8 percent is spent for administration, and that includes positions that nobody believes are a luxury, such as principals.

Then there is the oft-repeated claim that South Carolina’s schools are terrible and not improving, when in reality, our best schools are the equal of any schools anywhere, and our schools statewide are among the fastest-improving in the nation.

Most of us can spot lies told in pursuit of a political agenda. The values underlying that agenda, also evident in Mr. Page’s column, are much more pernicious.

The flaw in the logic of government by user fee — which could be extended, ludicrously, to hundreds of publicly funded services — is immediately apparent to reasonable people. Some people send their children to private colleges, but they recognize the need for public universities. Some live in gated communities with private security but understand their obligation to help fund public police, or own their own vacation homes but still see the need for state parks.

We fund these things for two reasons: We recognize them as a public good that benefits us all economically, and we are moral beings with a sense of responsibility to our fellow man.

So it is with South Carolina’s public schools. Strong schools, educating every child well, are the only public good that will lead to security and prosperity for us all.

And for the more than 226,000 South Carolina children living in poverty — in conditions most of us can’t imagine — strong public schools, which we all fund and participate in, are the one best hope for a different life.

South Carolina has roundly rejected SCRG’s voucher agenda in the past. Maybe that’s because as a practical, economic matter, we know that our public schools are improving, and that whatever threatens that progress threatens us all.

But maybe it’s also because we reject the values at the heart of the voucher agenda. Perhaps we believe, unlike Mr. Page, that South Carolina does have children of its own, and that we all have a part to play in giving them a better future.

Mr. Smith represents Richland County in the S.C. House.

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