Red States Fall Short on School Choice

The Republican Party proclaims in its national platform that it supports "state efforts to expand school choice," and several state party platforms say that they "do not fear" the effects of school choice. Amidst the ethical chaos in Washington today, and attempts by congressional leaders to cope with it, the GOP is hoping to reaffirm to a skeptical public the party’s principles of limited government and economic freedom. One way to reach this goal would be to pick up the torch of school choice.

Unfortunately, Republicans in control of several state governments have dropped that torch, extinguishing the prospects for fundamental choice-based education reform. Take South Carolina, where Republican Gov. Mark Sanford has been on the forefront for school choice after proposing a voucher program in his 2004 State of the State Address.

Called the "Put Parents In Charge Act," the legislation would have instituted a tax credit for private school tuition costs that varied depending on grade level. Sadly, despite a 74 to 50 Republican advantage over Democrats in the State House, and a 27 to 19 edge in the Senate, the governor’s proposal failed three times.

It isn’t institutional barriers that are preventing passage of the Republican agenda but friction between the executive and legislative branches. Sanford has pointedly criticized Republican lawmakers for what he sees as their unconditional willingness to accept the status quo. He brought live pigs to the House chamber in order to chastise them about their pork-barrel spending, and once arrived on a horse and buggy at the Capitol to symbolize the Republican establishment’s archaic mindset.

But South Carolinians shouldn’t tolerate political complacency when it comes to the education of their children. In 2003, the state ranked 24th out of 25 states and the District of Columbia in weighted SAT scores (the other 25 states primarily utilize the ACT test). Fully 50% of 8th graders scored at a "below basic" level on national science tests in 2000. Only 25% of South Carolina’s 4th graders rated "proficient" or higher in 2003 reading tests. After four more years in school they scored even lower, with only 24% of 8th graders taking similar reading tests ranking "proficient" or higher.

Even setting aside the poor testing performances, South Carolina is a state ripe for school choice. According to a 2000 report by the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, South Carolina is among the 10 least educationally-free states. Its charter school law is relatively weak and it forces families with home-schooled children to submit to more regulation than most states, further decreasing educational freedom.

South Carolina is not the only state to experience school reform gridlock. Other states with Republican majorities — such as Alaska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Missouri, Georgia, Idaho, and Texas — could have carried the torch on school choice, but their leaders have so far failed to follow through on their platform. Perhaps these states could follow the examples of their counterparts in Ohio and Utah, where Republican legislators have succeeded in implementing scholarship programs that operate on tax-advantaged donations.

Parents need more control, not less. Giving parents the right to choose schools for their children is fundamental to educational liberty. Rather than submit to the whims of bureaucrats, parents should be empowered to make educational decisions regarding their children. Voucher systems and tax-credit programs would inject much-needed competition into government’s near-monopoly on education, improving quality and cost-effectiveness. This tactic has worked to improve poor school systems in Milwaukee, Cleveland, and Washington, D.C., and should be applied in South Carolina and other states in need of choice.

As school choice initiatives stagnate, parents of children mired in failing schools across the nation are left with little recourse. Citizens of all states, especially those dominated by Republicans, should demand that their representatives step up and take a stand for their children. After all, a platform is exceedingly difficult to stand (or run) on if it has no legs.