South Carolina education superintendent Jim Rex recently viewed the independent film documentary Waiting for “Superman,” which analyzes several failures in the American public school system. The film has touched a nerve among those calling for more choices for students.
Rex, long a proponent of more options in the public school system, also agrees students in failing districts should have better choices. However, he and his successor disagree on whether or not those options should include tax incentives for students to attend private schools.
Incoming superintendent of education Mick Zais has publicly said he will support a system that allows parents to receive a tax credit for sending their child to a private school. Rex says that would hurt public schools across the state.
If you use tax dollars to incentivize people to leave the public school system, what you’re ultimately going to end up with is a dual system supported by taxpayers.
Rex sat down for a final interview with SCRN before he leaves office in January. He was elected in 2006 as the lone Democrat among the state’s constitutionally-elected officers. He did not seek re-election in 2010, focusing instead on an unsuccessful run for governor.
With budget cuts looming over schools, the issue of vouchers and tax credits will likely emerge again soon. Governor-elect Nikki Haley has said she would sign a voucher bill if it came across her desk.
Rex says a big problem with vouchers or tax incentives would be that private schools would not be held accountable in the same way public schools are.
Private schools can say yes or no to any student for any reason, which is fine as long as tax dollars are not involved. They can teach a particular religion, which, again is fine as long tax dollars aren’t involved. They’re also not transparent… so you don’t know which ones are working and which ones are not.
However, Zais says the credits would create greater competition among schools and help spur public schools into improving their standards. Proponents say parents would send their kids to public schools once those schools show improvement, because it would still be cheaper for them, even with the incentives factored in.
Rex says it would hurt the state in the long-term, however.
It would inevitably make us even more separate and even more unequal as a people, and that in turn would make us less competitive as a state. I think it’s a bad idea. I think the answer is to give every citizen a quality public school that they can choose.
Rex says he’s not against school choice in the public school system, however. Under his watch, the number of charter schools have grown in South Carolina. Charter schools are subsidized by state government, but are not subject to all of its rules. Zais has also pledged to expand the state’s charter school system.
Rex says the best way to improve students’ options in the near-term is to pass a bill similar to a 2007 proposal approved by the legislature, but vetoed by Governor Mark Sanford. That bill, which he helped write, would have required all school districts to expand their alternatives for traditional public schools. It would also have allowed students to go across district lines if they lived in an area with failing schools. At the time, Sanford said he vetoed the bill because it did not allow for private school vouchers.
Rex did not say what was next for him, but did say he hopes to stay involved in the state’s public education system in some capacity.