Private school choice will help, not hurt public education

May 8, 2014

Ellen Weaver

Former President & CEO

This letter to the editor appeared in The State on May 8, 2014.

I appreciated Cindi Scoppe’s column in support of Sen. Paul Thurmond’s efforts to streamline our process for dealing with ineffective teachers (“The cost of one bad teacher,” April 23). Teacher quality is the No. 1 in-school factor affecting student learning, and this is an important step toward our shared goal of strengthening public education in South Carolina.

What puzzles me is her argument that passing this reform is a way to beat back private-school choice. An Urban Institute study of Florida — which has some of the oldest and largest private-choice programs in the country — found that these programs contributed to increased performance in public schools, an idea borne out by the incredible gains that Florida’s most disadvantaged students have made in math and reading.

Opponents of private-school choice like to use the word “voucher” as a dog-whistle to indicate opposition to public education. But even that word is a relic. There are so many different kinds of education choice beyond vouchers: public charter schools and online education, public magnet schools, home schools — and yes, private schools, both religious and secular. Education savings accounts, tax credit scholarships … and who knows what will be the innovation of the future. The unifying theme? The idea that all parents should have the ability to choose a high-quality option for the unique needs of their child … and that a ZIP Code should not determine a student’s destiny.

I am a native South Carolinian and a graduate of public education. I have no nefarious “out-of-state agenda” to dismantle S.C. public schools. Rather, I hope we can have a reasonable, informed discussion about what “public education” actually means. Is it merely a system into which we pump more and more taxpayer dollars regardless of outcomes, or is it a well-educated student who is prepared for success as a productive citizen of our great state?

This is not some abstract battle of ideology, as opponents of private choice would have you believe. It’s about the very real future of our children: Will we continue to do the same thing and expect better results, or will we have a conversation informed by real data on proven policies that show the positive effects of more choices — both public and private — on public education.