Southern Politics

In South Carolina our new Governor, a smart, feisty woman, one who may turn out to be capable of accomplishing much, if not all, she says she’ll do, wants to change the way state public education funds are distributed. Right now, state funds for K through 12 public education are allocated to districts under a complex set of criteria. These criteria relate to full time equivalent students with weights assigned to special needs children, advanced placement children, etc. There is also some mathematical consideration offered for things like the local population’s capacity to pay and a number of other factors. Mostly though, the formula is based upon a per pupil weighted amount.

Governor Nikki Haley and her new Secretary of Education, Mick Zais, are talking about changing the formula so that “the funding follows the student.” By this, I think, they mean that funding on a per weighted pupil basis may remain intact but the money will follow the child rather than flow directly to and through the district. If this is their meaning, then it is a rather direct step toward basing public education funding on some sort of voucher system.

A companion suggestion being made by the new Secretary of Education is that pupils be allowed to attend whichever district they choose. This is an attempt to rescue pupils currently stuck in non-performing districts without having to fix the entire district. The idea being that an entire generation of pupils could be lost while the wheels of the bureaucracy grind out a solution for the district as a whole. Also, it is thought, when districts see the best of their pupils “fleeing” to better, neighboring districts it will spur changes in the non-performing district and hasten improvements. The first argument has some merit. The second is crap.

Having funds allocated to the individual pupil and having it made available to whatever district he or she chooses to attend is not the same as allowing students to use public education funds for private school tuition but it is only one step away. If it is to be done it would be better if they go ahead and allow private school funding. The current plan being talked about will result in the massive re-segregation of public schools, particularly in rural areas adjacent to more urban, more white counties. It will also remove state funding from the very districts that most require it. It will not fully empower parents, one of the main benefits of a true voucher system. Nor will it allow good teachers to drive out bad teachers, as a real voucher system would do. Nor will it result in a powerful constituency for ever greater, annual allocations of state funding for K-12 education.

A true voucher system, one that can be used for private as well as public school education, will become a popular and untouchable entitlement program. It will become, almost as soon as it is passed, a politically untouchable appropriation and one for which there will be, every year, a powerful demand for greater and greater funding levels. A true voucher system will, of course, allow parents who, for whatever reason, care little about their children’s education or who value superstition over science and real knowledge to squander the funds by sending their children to schools of no value. On the other hand, such a system will allow other parents — I believe this second group is the vast majority of parents — to pick the best school and the best teachers for their child.

This parental selection will do three things. First, it will make good teachers more valued in the marketplace relative to teachers of less ability and talent. This will allow good teachers to demand, and receive, increased compensation. This is something that is impossible, meaningfully impossible, under the current system. It will also make teachers the star of the education market, something not possible currently. Just as there are star doctors every hospital wants on staff, star columnists every newspaper, ezine, etc. wants on staff, every school will want teachers with enough local star power to pull in the students. Second, vouchers will allow schools, at every grade level, to specialize, offering differing curricula for the special needs of different students. This specialization is only possible in major population centers now but will be made more accessible throughout the state if a true voucher system is created. Third, and most importantly, by making funding an individual entitlement, the system will truly make funding public education the single most important item in the general fund budget.

A true voucher system will create political pressure that no legislature can withstand. It will result in an ever increasing proportion of the general fund of any state adopting it being allocated to K-12 education funding. Decades ago, when the State of South Carolina was creating the current education funding formulas, the potential of allowing funds by pupil and having the funds follow the pupil was discussed, albeit, at the time, the issue was not debated publicly. However, some of the people responsible for devising the formulas did discuss it. At that time, the legislators considering it were deeply respectful, even fearful, of the power of a popular entitlement and backed away from it. However, this is an idea whose time, at least in South Carolina, may have come.

While I am reasonably certain the people championing the idea do not want to create such a powerful entitlement program, that is what they appear to be ready to do. At least, they appear ready to take the next step toward doing just that. Once that first step is taken, the rest becomes inevitable. Can anyone doubt that, once the money is allocated to wherever the student goes, even within the public school system, it will be long before the combination of the time required and the transportation costs involved in a child commuting from one district to another will not result in enough political clout to force the next and final step? If the philosophy is between public allocation of funds by district or by pupil and the state chooses by pupil, then it would be far better to go all the way in one step.

Such a system will be better for education funding, parental empowerment, teacher salaries and just about everything else you can think of. Just beware, this is a program that will be enormously popular now and for as long as parents care about the education of their children. Motivated parents vote. For the most part, parents are young adults and they have a lot of energy to devote to political campaigns, if they chose to do so. Parents will have incentive to contribute both time and money to the campaigns of candidates who promise to, in effect, give them an increase in family income by raising the value of the annual voucher.

Governor Haley and Secretary Zais are about to release a powerful force from its box. Pandora would be proud.

Mike Copeland

Mike Copeland

I am old enough to know better. I have a B. A. from Birmingham Southern College and a Master's in City Planning from Georgia Tech. I have worked in SC State government for over a decade leaving as the Deputy Executive Director of the State Budget and Control Board, the state's administrative agency. I have owned the Fontaine Company since 1984 and am the managing member of a management, marketing and consulting company.

I am the author of several novels, some of which you may buy and read if you are of a mind to do so.