Giving every South Carolina student a brighter future

January 24, 2019

Ellen Weaver

Former President & CEO

Education is top of the agenda in Columbia. The Governor and top lawmakers vowing that 2019 is the year we will see big reforms to South Carolina’s last in the nation education system.

This week, National School Choice Week provided the perfect opportunity to consider how education choice is a vital component of any comprehensive plan to revolutionize learning, unleash economic growth and prepare students with the skills they need to compete and succeed in college or career.

In the last two decades, our state has transformed itself into an industrial powerhouse, attracting large businesses like Boeing, BMW, and Volvo to South Carolina. But to keep these firms and succeed in a 21st century economy, our state also needs to maintain a well-trained—and highly educated—workforce.

Sadly, the Post & Courier’s recent series of articles outlined the desperate plight facing many Palmetto State students. Even after the state lowered the bar on reading standards, nearly three in five (58.77%) third through eighth graders could not meet expectations.

More than one in three high school graduates (36.7%) do not meet career readiness standards. As one student poignantly stated, “My high school experience really did not prepare me for college in any respect.”

While the problems are complex and defy “silver bullet” solutions, there is no denying that innovations in education choice have brought new hope to many South Carolina families. In fact, at least one in five students currently participate in some form of education outside a traditional public school.

Some children attend public magnet programs offering specialized programs like science or the arts, or charter schools—100% public schools, with more freedom to innovate and more accountability, than traditional neighborhood schools.

South Carolina permits three different ways for parents to home school their children and also offers free online classes through VirtualSC. Some families utilize include open enrollment—students enrolling in public schools outside their assigned neighborhood.

And many parents sacrifice to provide private education for their children, including families of students with special needs who are now able to take advantage of South Carolina’s growing Exceptional SC tax credit scholarship program.

There is much more, however, that we can do to increase the ability of our children—whatever their zip code or income level—to access the educational environment that’s just right for them. Florida and Louisiana are leading the way as pioneers of an idea known as Online Course Access that harnesses the power of technology to offer a wide array of high-quality courses to students in every classroom, an idea that could be especially helpful in South Carolina’s rural communities.

Our neighbors in Tennessee, Mississippi, Florida and North Carolina have begun to unleash the potential of state-funded Education Scholarship Accounts, which allow qualified parents to completely customize their child’s education experience. ESAs are truly the 21st century “iPhone” of education choice.

Some argue that choice programs undermine traditional schools, skimming off students and disadvantaging those who remain in public education. But in reality, affluent parents already have access to school choice. Their wealth allows them the option to enroll their children in private schools or to move to an area with good schools.

Education choice seeks to extend that same opportunity to all families, so that every child has access to quality educational options, and no child remains stuck in a school that isn’t meeting their needs.

The beneficiaries of education choice include people like Ta’Shaun Harris. Ta’Shaun says he “grew up in the hood,” but wants a better future for himself and his children. He shared that Greenville’s Legacy Charter School environment instilled both discipline and confidence in him and has unlocked big dreams for his future.  His great-grandmother Sandra, takes pride in the way that Legacy Charter School provides a quality education and allows students like Ta’Shaun “to focus on what they want to do—not one-size-fits-all.”

That basic premise— that one size does not fit all—is the foundational power of education choice: allowing parents to customize an education best suited to their child’s individual gifts and dreams.

This year, we’re joining 40,000 events across the nation to celebrate the ways in which these options have already benefited millions of students like Ta’Shaun Harris. Yesterday, over 1,500 students from every education option gathered in Columbia to “Highlight Happiness” with their choice and raise their voice to support the same opportunity for all students.

Education is the bridge to a bright future for today’s students and generations of South Carolinians yet to come. Let’s roll up our sleeves to preserve—and expand—their education choices in the Palmetto State.

Photo: Sam Holland