Educational Freedom: How to Achieve It


It’s no secret that South Carolina has some of the worst public schools and some of the lowest levels of student academic achievement in the country. The most important factors generating this failure are these: (a)  a strong reluctance to experiment in education, combined with (b) an unthinking acceptance of universal standards that dictate a uniform approach to educating all students. Even when politicians admit there are problems with our schools, they refuse to acknowledge any flaws in the broken system under which all public schools operate. Instead, every failing is blamed on a lack of resources, and more funding is always presented as a panacea.

Many legislators’ current education solution is the “Read to Succeed Act” – a bill that would provide more funding for reading instruction, reading camps, etc., and that will hold back students who fail to achieve adequate reading scores on standardized tests. The bill, like the governor’s education budget plan, accepts the flawed premise that more money alone can improve results, and despite its catchy name the “Read to Succeed Act” essentially accepts the status quo structure of South Carolina public education.

The goal: educational freedom

For South Carolina to have true educational freedom, parents must have the option to send their children to a school they feel best suits their child’s needs, rather than being forced to send their child to a standardized public school based only on geographic location. On the school side, independent schools would maintain their own standards distinct from those decided upon by the state. Public school standards would be decided at the state level and – under a reformed and more accountable system (see below) – and without federal influence. Students, parents, and schools would all be empowered by the proper reforms.

Barrier No. 1: Severely limited choice

South Carolina currently has no school choice measure that applies to all students. The only school choice program currently active in the state is a one-year budget proviso (set to expire in July of 2014) that provides up to $8 million in tax credits for individuals who donate to organizations that provide independent school scholarships to special needs students. While any school choice program is a step in the right direction, this program is limited by both the $8 million cap on credits and the provision restricting the program to special needs children. Further, the fact that the program is a budget proviso means that it is only guaranteed to last one year, legislators can end the program any year by refusing to extend the program to the next year’s budget. Even if this program is renewed, there will be a large population of South Carolina children trapped in underperforming public schools who won’t be helped.

Removing the barrier: open school choice to all school-age children

In order to give every South Carolina child a chance at receiving an education suited to his or her needs, legislators must create a program that applies to all school-age children. This could take multiple forms. One would be a tax credit (roughly equivalent to the size of average tuition) for independent school tuition or homeschooling expenses, claimable by all parents with a child of school age. One bill introduced this year would create such a program by offering a tax credit for school tuition or homeschool expenses worth up to $5,000 to all parents of school aged children.

Legislators should also consider creating an additional tax credit scholarship targeted at low-income families who may not pay enough in taxes to receive the full-dollar value of a credit. In recent years legislators have introduced school choice tax deduction bills that ignore the financial realities facing low-income families. Proper remedies for these families must not be income based. (It’s often objected that tax credit scholarships are a way of allocating state money for private ends. If that were an accurate representation of the case, SCPC would of course oppose it. But the state has long ago taken over the preponderance of the education market, forcing taxpayers to pay for a school system whether they use it, approve of it, or neither use nor approve of it. School choice measures like the ones we describe here provide a measure of freedom within an already heavily distorted market.)

The key component of any school choice program is that it grants parents the financial resources they need to provide the best possible education for their child. No school is entitled to funding, and school choice helps to ensure that education funds serve the needs of students rather than institutions.

Barrier No. 2: Out-of-state, one-size-fits-all academic standards

In 2010, South Carolina gave up its sovereignty over academic standards to the federalized Common Core Initiative when the State Board of Education and Education Oversight Committee (EOC) voted to adopt these standards for English and math. By committing the state to Common Core, South Carolina schools must now teach to academic standards developed by out-of-state education “experts.” Moreover, the State Board soon voted to adopt Smarter Balanced assessments – the federally funded consortium designing Common Core-aligned tests.

The state gave up its authority over standards and assessments primarily for federal money. South Carolina applied for (but never received) Race to the Top grants in exchange for adopting Common Core, and successfully obtained No Child Left Behind waivers (attached to over $200 million in federal Title I funds) in exchange for doing the same. Put simply, the state has given up its vital role in education – a historically state function – to the federal government, which has no constitutional authority to regulate education.

Removing the barrier: more accountability for standards adoption, no further reliance on federal money

First, South Carolina should end its use of Common Core standards. Although schools have already been implementing these standards and state and local money has been spent to implement them, the state should change standards and consider the resources used for Common Core implementation as a loss. This cost is nothing compared to the cost of losing state sovereignty over education. Preferably, the State Board and EOC would vote to adopt state-developed standards, reversing their previous decisions to adopt Common Core. Moreover, the state would need to leave the Smarter Balanced consortium that mandates the state adoption of Common Core standards.

To prevent something like Common Core from being adopted again, decisions over standards and assessments need to be put in one accountable branch – preferably the executive branch under the Department of Education. The State Board and EOC contain a mix of lawmakers and unelected appointees from the legislative and executive branches. Since these boards are highly unaccountable – they’re not directly answerable to the public – they are able to make decisions with little to no citizen input. These duties could be devolved solely to the Department of Education headed by the State Superintendent who is elected state-wide.

However, even if the decision-making authority is made more accountable, there is certainly no guarantee that temptations to take federal money will be lost. The strings attached to federal funds hold massive implications, yet they are rarely if ever scrutinized on the front end. Thus, federal funds should go through a strict transparency process, including public input, so that lawmakers can be held accountable if they hand over state sovereignty in order to accept federal money.

Would these reforms be backed by the constitution?

There is nothing in the text of the constitution that would directly conflict with either of these reform proposals. The U.S. constitution doesn’t contain the words education or schools, where as it explicitly grants states the powers not enumerated in the federal constitution. The evident conclusion is that education is a state function and only a state function – the federal government has no role.

How would educational freedom affect you?

First, students would no longer be forced into a broken system. Parents would be able to choose a school with a curriculum that best suits the educational needs of their child. If a school fails to meet the needs of a child, that child could change schools without the necessity of his or her entire family uprooting to another district. The resulting widening of choice, together with the competition for excellence encouraged by greater levels of parental choice, would improve educational performance at all levels. Further, as comprehensive studies have shown, school choice programs are also more prudent with public money. In other words: better results for less money.

While all children would benefit from widespread school choice, those from the poorest families would likely benefit the most: these children are often trapped in the worst schools, with their parents lacking the financial resources to do anything about it. If the state can improve educational outcomes while saving money at the same time through one policy, there’s no good reason why lawmakers shouldn’t try.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email