Dr. Oran Smith

Testimony to First Steps to School Readiness Study Committee

December 5, 2014

Dr. Oran Smith

Thursday, December 4, 2014, 1:00 PM
110 Blatt Building, Columbia, SC
Good afternoon.

I am Oran Smith, and I come to you this afternoon in two capacities. I am President & CEO of Palmetto Family, a faith-based, public policy research organization founded in Spartanburg and based here in Columbia since 1994. I am also glad to be part of Palmetto Policy Forum, a new type of policy organization dedicated to expanding opportunity by building consensus around common sense solutions.

For those of you not familiar with PPF, you will surely know some of our board members, like Phil Hughes, Van Hipp, Barry Wynn, and an obscure banker by the name of Brenan. I serve as Senior Fellow at PPF. Our President and CEO is Ellen Weaver
By way of personal background, I received my undergraduate degree from Clemson and my Master of Public Administration and Doctorate from the University of South Carolina. I should also add that my parents, who are Furman Class of 1954, assure me that they voted for Dick Riley for Student Body President that year. I came to Columbia from Greenville with Carroll Campbell to serve in his office of economic development.

My brief thoughts today will be of a macro or broad perspective. I believe the principles I outline today enjoy strong, majority support with the public and certainly on the boards to which I report and will serve to frame parts of this discussion.

So, what are the “first principles” that I believe must underlie any sound recommendations for early childhood education in our state? Here are five assertions or principles I would like to leave with you:

First, the Education of Young Children is a Family Affair. We believe that the institution of family and its role must be protected. The primary educator of our youngest citizens is the family. Governmental policies should support and defer to the family unit, not by coming with an attitude of “we know better than parents”, undermine or replace the family as educators of pre-kindergarteners.

It has been a nearly ten years now, but I was struck by a very strongly worded op-ed on this matter that appeared in The State newspaper in 2006. The author was Reed Morton, the legendary kicker for the USC football team. I had never seen his views in print before or since. The title of the piece was “Hand Them Over to the State.” His argument was that at the current pace of early childhood education, in 2015 every infant would be taken directly from the hospital in which she was born to the local public school for “early intervention.”
An extreme example, let’s not go down that road. Let’s default to the parent as the primary educator for 0-3 when we can, and work with parents when we can’t.
The Meeting Street Academy in Charleston and Spartanburg founded by George Dean Johnson represents a marvelous example of how parents have become a part of early education, of how home and school can work together.
In all things, family should be encouraged. I realize this may be outside the scope of this committee, but one way to do that might be to help poor families thrive financially. For at least six years, John Rouff of SC Fair Share has been walking these halls attempting to generate interest in a state earned income tax credit. Could an EITC be devised that would help the working poor be better parents? Under certain conditions, now may be the time for an EITC along the lines of the federal version championed by Ronald Reagan.

Second, the Education of Young Children is in SC often a Faith Affair.
The church and the church-sponsored school are extensions of the family. Government should protect the church as a private provider—a place where faith can be openly shared and celebrated, as in the family.

This brings me quickly to an adjacent third point, The Education of Young Children in SC Has Represented a Marvelous Experiment in Free Enterprise that We Should Encourage not “Stateize.” If we were referring to a military junta somewhere in South America taking over a private industry it would be called “nationalization.” I am not aware of a word to indicate takeover of an industry or ministry in the private sector by a state government, so I have coined “stateize.”

I urge you to in all cases seek to make private options work. After the family, the state should defer (or default) to private enterprise and the free market. Best practices should be used as models, and the highest level of accountability for public dollars should be non-negotiable, but free enterprise is the reason for South Carolina’s very existence. Free enterprise should be allowed to work in the sphere of the education of young children.

Private sector early childhood providers:
– Allow parents to retain more control over their children’s early years.
– Specialize in early childhood only and do not blend toddlers with much older children.
– They also offer closer monitoring of transportation issues for small children.
– Can usually educate a child for less than the state, all while paying state and local taxes.
– Are allowed to teach from the Bible and offer spiritual instruction, which is vitally important during the early years of a child’s life. Government takeover equals secularization of care.
– Represent hundreds of families who have dedicated their lives to the education of young children. They are an extension of the family.
– Are just that, private. They are small businesses representing the spirit of free enterprise that built this nation.
– Are regulated effectively, unlike unlicensed home day care facilities.

For a preview of what might be on the horizon if we are not vigilant in this area, we need only to look towards Great Britain. Even with that country’s greater tolerance for government intervention, many there are concerned that government-dominated child care has gone too far.

In fact, the (2010) platform for Britain’s Conservative Party states that while they support care for pre-school aged children, they want that care to be “provided by a diverse range of providers – including the many childminders and private, voluntary and independent nurseries which are currently being squeezed out of the system.”

Rather than rolling First Steps into Fort Rutledge, an unwelcome environment for building public-private partnerships, low income families in South Carolina would be better-served if parents were given flexible spending accounts to use for educational and educational therapy-related services for students. Florida and Arizona offer some families accounts such as these and have found high levels of parental satisfaction.[i] Florida’s preschool choice program includes specific academic goals and a provision to remove underperforming providers from participation in the program. Rigorous analyses of programs around the country that offer scholarships for private programs show significant levels of student achievement.[ii]

South Carolina’s goal should be to improve student outcomes and give families flexible, high-quality options to prepare their children to succeed—not simply to willy nilly enroll more young children in classroom settings at earlier ages.

Connected to Choice in Education is my fourth point, that the Education of Young Children Should Not Take a One Size Fits All Approach. Every child should not necessarily go to school at ages 0, 1, 2, or 3. A “universal” pre-school is hardly the logical response in a state that has since 1999 spent $436 million on early education programs, pushing more and more kids into pre-K while seeing 2 out of 3 state 4th graders reading at “Basic” or “Below Basic” levels—levels that indicate students are preforming below the appropriate grade level.[iii]

Research does not indicate that universal pre-k is the answer. We have significant work to do to insure the K-12 education system young children matriculate into is prepared to sustain any gains made amongst certain populations in early childhood. I’m afraid that as of now, we simply can’t say that’s the case.

A one size fits all Universal Money Bomb is not the answer. Justice Kittredge said as much in his dissent in Abbeville et. al. when he wrote that “…five of the eight districts in this litigation are in the top ten school districts in the state in terms of revenues received. Thus, Plaintiff Districts are among the highest funded districts in the state…”We urge you to continue on a path of targeting of funding, insuring that state dollars are sent where they will be used accountably and effectively to promote robust student achievement.

Fifth…and finally, and admittedly this has been touched on by earlier testimony…the Education of Young Children Should Not Be Held Hostage to Arcane, Even Byzantine Education Structure.
In the Abbeville decision, Justice Toal writing for the majority said that “…it is striking that the parties to the instant litigation have focused narrowly on a struggle between education expenditures and education outcomes while ignoring the overarching dilemmas emanating from the organizational structure of public education.”[iv]

Palmetto Policy Forum has been on record since its inception about the drag on the system represented by multiple boards with overlapping and even competing responsibilities in education. We are particularly disturbed by a State Board of Education selected by odd-sized Judicial Circuits that rotate amongst the counties within the Circuit thus not democratically representing the families they are meant to serve.

But consider the First Steps to School Readiness Board of Trustees. It has been said that a camel is a horse designed by a committee. The First Steps governance structure surely looked like this progeny. Stakeholders, particularly private providers and business representatives must be at the table. But 39 members was quite large. A reduction to 25 is a great improvement. But a sound option would be to look to the MA, OH and MD models for how to fine tune an agency with a Commission and a CEO.

So, in conclusion, our request of this study committee in its deliberations, can be summarized with four “R’s”: Respect for the Family & Private Providers, a close monitoring of the state’s Return on Investment no matter what the provider, a Ramping Up of Opportunity through more and earlier choices for parents, and a Restructuring of Education Governance.

Thank you for the opportunity to share these thoughts with you.

Jonathan Butcher and Jason Bedrick, M.P.P., “Schooling Satisfaction: Arizona Parents’ Opinions on Using Education Savings Accounts,” The Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, October 10, 2014, http://www.edchoice.org/Research/Reports/Schooling-Satisfaction–Arizona-Parents–Opinions-on-Using-Education-Savings-Accounts.aspx.

Greg Forster, “A Win-Win Solution: The Empirical Evidence on School Choice,” 3rd
ed., April 2013, p. 3, http://www.edchoice.org/Research/Reports/A-Win-Win-Solution–The-Empirical-Evidence-on-School-Choice.aspx

U.S. Department of Education, “The Nation’s Report Card: 2013 Mathematics and
Reading,” http://www.nationsreportcard.gov/reading_math_2013/#/state-performance

Abbeville County School District et al. v.
The State of South Carolina, SC Supreme Court Opinion No. 27466, November
12, 2014.