Ellen Weaver

Let all students write education success story

October 19, 2015

Ellen Weaver

This op-ed was written by Ellen Weaver and published in The Greenville News on 10/16/15.

Every child deserves a high-quality education that allows them to reach their full potential.

South Carolina students are blessed with a growing number of personalized education options, but many families aren’t aware of their full range of current choices. That is why we’ve launched “Empower Opportunity,” an online catalog to educate parents and showcase the learning journey of Palmetto State families just like them.

For example, the Lisinskis found the perfect fit for their young twin boys at Carolina Voyager Charter School, a public charter school in Charleston. The open, diverse and parent-friendly school is providing their sons with the flexible, personalized attention they need to thrive.

The Williams family in Chapin found that their son excels at Spring Hill High School, a public magnet school program where students develop business plans, market, staff and manage school “stores” as a hands-on part of their education experience. This has taught him how to be an entrepreneur and inspired him to see that college is possible.

The Hollingsworths were nearly at their wits’ end trying to meet the unique challenge of educating their grandson, who struggles with severe autism. Thankfully, South Carolina’s Exceptional Needs Tax Credit Scholarship has allowed them to enroll him at Greenville’s Hidden Treasure Christian School, where he has blossomed, giving them incredible peace of mind.

Virtual schools, private schools, home schools, and many traditional public schools are also creating a thriving environment for South Carolina children. Unfortunately, too many students still don’t have access to these high-quality options. This simply cannot stand.

We don’t have to look far to find other states that are innovating in bipartisan ways to empower every student with a customized, world-class education.

Georgia, Louisiana and Tennessee have created Achievement School Districts (ASDs), designed to oversee the turnaround of their state’s lowest performing schools. By placing high-caliber, accountable leadership over these schools and removing bureaucratic red-tape, ASDs are providing the autonomy and flexibility necessary to create truly transformational, student-focused environments.

In 2013, Louisiana established the Supplemental Course Academy, which gives public school students access to high-quality online courses offered by a variety of providers that they otherwise wouldn’t have. This has proven to be a huge boon to families living in rural communities. The program is growing by leaps and bounds, with students enrolling in 19,000 classes in 2014-15, a 700 percent increase over the prior school year!

Modeled on the popular idea of Health Savings Accounts, Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) are now available in Arizona, Florida, Tennessee, Nevada and Mississippi. ESAs are the “iPhone” of education options, giving parents direct access to their child’s funding from the state student funding formula to create the ultimate customized education. The state deposits the money into a dedicated personal account and parents may then spend that money on a wide variety of approved service — including tuition, therapy and tutoring — whatever their child needs. Unused funds can even be rolled over from year-to-year to save for college! It’s a bold idea that South Carolina’s lawmakers would do well to explore.

And we can’t forget to support and grow our existing options: South Carolina’s charter schools — public schools in every way except for their form of governance — currently receive no transportation money and very limited access to facilities funds to develop new schools.

Demand for South Carolina’s exceptional needs scholarships — and a similar parent tax credit enacted this year — far exceeds what’s currently available. Lawmakers should raise the caps on these popular programs and make them permanent law … and even consider other students like foster children and military families who could benefit from this same type of opportunity.

What are the results where innovative choice is expanding? Rising graduation rates, higher college enrollment in minority communities, increasing academic achievement among the students that need it most, taxpayer savings … and students, parents and teachers who enjoy being treated as unique individuals, not just part of a system.

There is no silver bullet to fix education inequities in our state. But that’s the point: only a wide and growing array of options can provide the best chance for every child to find the education that’s right for them. Let’s give every South Carolina student the opportunity to write their own education success story.