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The school choice agenda isn't what it seems

Bad Choices

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School choice advocates are employing a new strategy in their battle to change state laws in support of their agenda. A group calling itself the "Black Community Developers" has begun sending glossy pamphlets to area residents, touting the benefits of school choice as a policy which "empowers low-income parents to choose the best schools for their children." Recipients of this mailing who support public education should not be fooled; this ploy is only the most recent attempt to enact a policy which would siphon away desperately needed resources from our public schools.

There has been a consistent effort in much of the South to undermine funding for public schools ever since the Supreme Court outlawed segregation in its 1954 landmark ruling of Brown v. Board of Education. In the 55 years since that decision, the strategies utilized to circumvent the high court's ruling have included the establishment of segregation academies or "white-flight" schools, the actual closing of an entire school district in Virginia to avoid desegregation, and the passage of laws which forbade integrated schools from receiving any state funds. Many of these activities were ultimately overturned through the courts in the early 1960s, but some, such as school choice, simply evolved.

While the justifications for school choice may have changed, the overall intent has essentially stayed the same. In a nutshell, the purpose is to divert taxpayer money away from failing schools and shift those resources toward better-performing schools. Whether it is a private school or a highly-rated public school that receives the money, the result is the same: resources are diverted away from schools in need of improvement and sent to schools which are already doing well.

Sen. Harry Byrd of Virginia first articulated the school choice strategy in 1956 in response to the Brown v. Board decision. He once said, "If we can organize the Southern States for massive resistance to this order, I think that in time the rest of the country will realize that racial integration is not going to be accepted in the South." To further this strategy, one of the laws enacted in Virginia created tuition grants which could be given to students so they could attend the private school of their choice. Sound familiar?

Back then the rationale for these grants was to avoid desegregation; today the justification proffered is the rescue of our children from failing schools. That goal sounds laudable until one considers that many of these schools were previously the separate-but-unequal schools that were ruled inferior in Brown.

However, access to greater financial resources did not appear after the Supreme Court's historic decision. In fact, the opposite has often occurred. In South Carolina, for instance, when our legislature recently decided to abolish property taxes for funding school operating expenses in favor of sales tax revenue, state funding for public schools decreased dramatically. School operating expenses, which often comprised 50 to 60 percent of local property tax bills prior to 2007, were largely removed for owner-occupied homes. Those with the most expensive homes realized the largest tax savings; these amounts would likely cover a private school tuition several times over in a typical case. Wealthy homeowners, therefore, received an enormous "back-door" tuition grant. The end result for the state public school system? Less money in school operating budgets as witnessed by a $28 million deficit in Charleston County alone.

As an added twist, lower income people are now shouldering proportionally more of this tax burden since people of all income levels pay sales tax.

While underfunded public schools hurt all students, in our state those most likely to be hurt are African-Americans in rural and inner-city school districts. The irony, therefore, of using black politicians and "community developers" to push the school-choice agenda is almost hysterically comical — only if it weren't so sad.

In addition to being a City Paper columnist, Dwayne Green is married to Charleston County School Board chair Toya Hampton Green.

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