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Public Education Partners, Spartanburg Academic Movement, and South Carolina Future Minds’ Testimony Regarding S.556, the Equal Opportunity Education Scholarship Account Act

Public Education Partners Greenville County (PEP), Spartanburg Academic Movement (SAM), and South Carolina Future Minds (SCFM) are independent, nonprofit organizations working across different geographic areas to improve educational outcomes for each of South Carolina’s public school students. Collectively, our boards reflect membership from the state’s top employers.

We believe that each of South Carolina’s 787,000 students deserves an equal opportunity to succeed in school and life, regardless of the circumstances from which they hail. We appreciate the time and effort the General Assembly has spent on education reform in public schools in our state. Unfortunately, Education Scholarship Accounts (ESA) – a type of private education voucher – do not improve educational outcomes for students. We appreciate the opportunity to provide the following feedback.

1. By the state’s own estimation, the proposed voucher program would cost public school districts $223 million in its first year of implementation and $457 million in its second.

The cost is unknown for the third year and beyond because the cap on participation is lifted. There is no need to belabor this point, as the Subcommittee has heard the widespread concern about the economic impact this legislation would have on public school districts.

It is our understanding that the bill may be amended in order to reduce its fiscal impact. However, limiting participation to students experiencing poverty would include nearly 60% of students statewide, thereby resulting in little savings. Limiting participation to students with special needs might reduce costs, but is redundant given the existence of the Exceptional SC tax credit for parents of special-needs students.

It is worth considering that just 13,884 of Florida’s 2.7 million students participated in its ESA program in the 2019 – 20 school year, yet the cost to state’s taxpayers was $145.9 million. Note that participation in Florida’s ESA program is limited to students with special needs.

2. Vouchers produce, at best, no gains in academic achievement.

ESAs are a relatively new construct and currently enacted in only six states; as such, there is a dearth of evidence-based research on their efficacy. However, the considerable body of research studying more established voucher programs is instructive.

In the last five years, at least ten studies have found no improvement in academic achievement from state voucher or tuition tax credit programs.(1) For example, a 2019 study of the Louisiana Scholarship Program (LSP) found that after four years, students using vouchers to attend private schools “performed noticeably worse on state assessments than their [public school] control group counterparts.”(2) Another 2019 study published in the Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences found “significant achievement losses for students who switch from a public to a private school with a voucher” in Indiana.(3)

3. Voucher programs like ESAs often provide “school choice” in name only.

ESA proponents argue that students should not be forced to attend “failing” schools and that, given a choice, families will choose to send students to a “better” school. Unfortunately, school choice is often an illusion for students experiencing poverty and especially students living in rural parts of the state.

Transportation to and from school is, in and of itself, a massive barrier to school choice. Even in Greenville County Schools (GCS), a public school district offering families a choice to attend a school for which they’re not zoned, transportation to and from school is generally not provided.

If transportation is an issue in Greenville, it will certainly be a barrier in less affluent and more rural counties. Yes, transportation is an allowable ESA expense but that means less dollars leftover to cover the cost of private school tuition.

Additionally, there simply aren’t many private school options in many South Carolina counties. There is one in Bamberg, four in Barnwell, one in Dillon, two in Abbeville, one in Edgefield, two in Fairfield. Some counties, like Allendale, have zero. Where might these children choose to go? At what time might they need to wake in order to arrive at school on time?

Institutions participating in the ESA program also have the right to choose which students they admit. Though the law as written prohibits discrimination based on race, color, disability, and national origin, participants are not required to provide services that meet the needs of all students; public schools, on the other hand, are required to provide a free, appropriate education to students with disabilities. By setting stringent admissions requirements – academic, religious, or otherwise – participants are, in effect, restricting the degree of choice some families are afforded.

That parents will always elect to remove their children from “failing” schools is also false. The South Carolina Public Charter School District was taking steps to shut down several failing charter schools in its district. However, another charter school authorizer was created and assumed those schools. Those failing schools still exist today, and parents still elect to send their children there. This example demonstrates that parents don’t always “vote with their feet” when it comes to failing schools.

In fact, according to the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education at Columbia University, data has shown that “the vast majority (up to 97%) of parents with children in ‘failing’ schools choose to leave their children in those schools, even when it is their legal right to do otherwise.” (4)

4. ESAs reallocate taxpayer dollars to a system that lacks significant accountability and transparency.

The very text of S.556 states that no state actor may regulate the educational program of a participating school or provider. The bill goes on to provide optional accountability mechanisms, including an optional study of the program’s success that would not be state funded. In our view, this opens the door to partisan studies that misrepresent or inflate the efficacy of the ESA program.(5)

Institutions that participate in the ESA program should be held accountable to parents and taxpayers in the same ways as traditional public schools and charters – by taking the same statestandardized tests and reporting their results to the public in the same way. In that way, we appropriately steward public dollars and are able to make apples-to-apples comparisons of student achievement.

5. Conclusion

In closing, we would like to remind the subcommittee that the overwhelming majority of our children in South Carolina are enrolled or will enroll in South Carolina’s traditional public schools. We owe it to them to perfect that system, rather than creating parallel, less accountable systems. Our recommendation to the committee is to fund public school choice the way it would like to fund private school choice. By doing so, we believe that the majority of families will opt to remain in public schools.

Respectfully submitted,

Lindsey Jacobs
Policy and Advocacy Director
Public Education Partners
lindsey@pepgc.org www.pepgc.org

 

John C. Stockwell
Executive Director
Spartanburg Academic Movement
stockwelljohnc@gmail.com
www.learnwithsam.org

 

Debbie Jones
Executive Director
South Carolina Future Minds
debbie@scfutureminds.org
www.scfutureminds.org


1 The studies looked at voucher programs in Louisiana, Indiana, Washington, D.C., Ohio, and Alabama. 2 Mills, J. & Wolf, P. (2019). The Effects of the Louisiana Scholarship Program on Student Achievement After Four Years. Retrieved at https://ssrn.com/abstract=3376230. 3 Austin, M., Waddington, R., & Berends, M. (2019). Voucher Pathways and Student Achievement in Indiana’s Choice Scholarship Program. Retrieved at https:// https://www.rsfjournal.org/content/rsfjss/5/3/20.full.pdf. 4 Bell, C. (2005). All Choices Created Equal? How Good Parents Select “Failing” Schools. Retrieved at https:// https://ncspe.tc.columbia.edu/working-papers/OP106.pdf. 5 Additionally, the absence of oversight of ESAs in other states has also led to misuse and fraud. By way of example, parents in Arizona spent $700,000 on banned items and services in 2018. Retrieved at https://www.azcentral.com/story/news/politics/arizona/2018/10/29/misspent-school-voucher-funds-exceed-700-klittle-recovered/1780495002/.

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