School Choice Week II?

April 19, 2018

Oran P. Smith, Ph.D

Senior Fellow

National School Choice Week is celebrated every January all over America. You saw the video of the amazing outpouring of support for all educational options. Charter, home, private, online, magnet and Christian school students filled the steps of our South Carolina Statehouse.

But this legislative week was another type of School Choice Week…more of a policy week.

The SC Senate heard testimony on not one, but two, transformative programs—one active and one waiting in the wings. Both programs could take as their motto that “every child deserves the opportunity of an education that meets their unique needs and equips them to reach their full potential.”

Tuesday. Exceptional SC, our only existing program providing children with special needs an option other than the local public school, was up to bat first. Parents from all area codes in South Carolina hit it out of the park, telling stories of frustration with the inability of their harried local public schools to educate their children in a manner befitting their learning method. Dispelling the myth that certain children don’t have the capacity to be educated, one parent celebrated possibilities: “Everyone can learn, we just have to give them the appropriate opportunity.”

The K-12 Subcommittee of Senate Finance heard from dozens of parents and children in the Exceptional SC program who gave moving testimonies about their often-desperate search to help their children. They shared how finding – and being able to afford because of Exceptional SC – the right education option has changed their lives. One mother even said, “You’ve saved my family!”

Happily, the Exceptional SC bill has already passed the House. So, if the full Finance Committee can get it to the floor without hiccups, the program that has had to be renewed every year in nail-biting fashion can be permanent.

Wednesday. Next up was the Education Scholarship Account, or ESA for short. The ESA allows funds the state is already spending to be placed into a parent-navigable account. That Education Scholarship Account has the power to create unprecedented flexibility for parents to customize an education that meets the unique needs of their child.

The bill we presented, with the expert testimony of Adam Peshek of ExcelinEd (pictured above), draws on the best ESA ideas from the experiences of Arizona, Florida, Mississippi, Tennessee and North Carolina, where ESA’s are already in place and delivering results.

We shared with the subcommittee of Senate Education the core ideas of ESA’s:

  • Moving away from one-size-fits all towards flexibility
  • Moving from top down mandates to bottom up innovation
  • Moving from system-centered to student-centered
  • Moving toward a robust ecosystem of education options that allows for difference and customization and unlocks the profoundly personal promise to be found inside every student.

Our current education system was created in a one-size-fits-all world that no longer exists. And as we know all too well here in South Carolina, the system is showing its age. But in supporting Exceptional SC and ESA’s, we are simply acknowledging the limitations of the system. We are not criticizing the many incredible people who work tirelessly to give their best to the students they serve. Nor are we denying that excellent public schools and success stories exist.

But we must not shrink from the promise presented by these innovations that are working in so many other places. Failure to adjust to the new world of education options will have disastrous implications not only for each individual student but for the future of our state’s economy. The jobs of the future rely on an educated workforce. As states around us move forward with bold, bi-partisan ideas like tax credit scholarships and ESA’s to empower their students, South Carolina simply can’t get left behind.

The Education Savings Account took its maiden voyage in South Carolina this week, providing information and educating the members of the Senate on its specific provisions. With this groundwork laid, the prospects for an ESA program in South Carolina has taken a positive first step.

Happy School Choice Week II!