Jonathan Butcher: Good ideas in education travel in packs

Earlier this year, I wrote for reimaginED that  South Carolina educators were publicly debating the nature and purpose of education in the state. Whether schools should focus on STEM or liberal arts, or some combination, is a good discussion to have.

But since taxpayers are spending three times as much per student today than when their grandparents were in school, after adjusting for inflation, and yet two-thirds of fourth graders in the state cannot read at grade level, parents are right to wonder if the education “experts” are asking the right questions.

Deliberation is usually a welcome part of democratic life, but not when children can’t read. South Carolina lawmakers are — again, for at least the eighth time in as many years —considering proposals in both state legislative chambers that would empower parents to identify and then meet their child’s needs.

These proposals stalled last year after lawmakers failed to compromise on different approaches to providing students with more options. This year’s proposals in the House and Senate pose a similar quandary: Do South Carolina students need access to private school scholarships or education savings accounts?

The answer is … both.

Some families may choose a private school for their child, like the families profiled regularly on this blog. (See here, here and here.) Others may want to customize their child’s education, which is becoming more common around the country. Just this year, lawmakers in Arkansas, Iowa, and Utah approved new accounts or account-style options for families.

South Carolina lawmakers should note, however, that some Iowa and Utah families also have access to tax credit scholarships, and Arkansas students with special needs, in foster care or in military families, can apply for private school scholarships.

Meanwhile, families still looking across state lines at learning opportunities elsewhere will notice that in North Carolina, families of children with special needs can use education savings accounts and private school scholarships — at the same time, if they choose.

Florida, Mississippi, and Georgia all have combinations of private school scholarships and/or education savings accounts.

Why not just combine the two proposals in South Carolina and let parents choose which option is best for their student?

Lawmakers nationwide also are recognizing that parent rights and education choice fit nicely together and are trying to advance both, sometimes in the same proposal. The proposal that created education savings accounts in Arkansas also gave parents more rights over their child’s learning experience, including the ability to view school curriculum.

In Texas, state lawmakers are considering a proposal that would offer education savings accounts to every child in the state while also providing more academic transparency. South Carolina policymakers have also been debating academic transparency proposals. So why not just get the job done on all these issues simultaneously, in the same or separate proposals?

Legislators should consider education choice proposals — tax credit scholarships, education savings accounts, etc.— and requirements that assigned schools post curriculum and homework assignments online as part of the same effort to empower parents.

Surveys show strong support for all these ideas. A nationally representative survey conducted by Harvard and Stanford finds that 51% of parents favor education savings accounts compared to 38% who oppose, while a Heritage Foundation survey found that nearly 63% of parents said academic transparency is important to them.

A Rasmussen poll from 2022 found that 84% of voters were in favor of giving parents the ability to see the content their children are learning. Lawmakers considering these ideas linking school choice and parent rights clearly have support behind them.

Now, as Texas races to catch up with Florida and adopt the next education savings account proposal, (Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed an education savings account expansion into law on Monday), South Carolina families will be eyeing the calendar to see how much time state legislators have left this year to give students hope for the future.

Since state officials have proposals for all the different options, there is no need to choose just one.

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BY Jonathan Butcher

Jonathan Butcher is senior policy analyst in the Center for Education Policy's Institute for Family, Community and Opportunity at The Heritage Foundation.