Earlier this week, over 40 members of the South Carolina School Boards Association visited the offices of South Carolina’s two senators Tim Scott and Lindsey Graham in efforts to oppose President Donald Trump’s choice of Betsy DeVos as his first education secretary.
Now that DeVos got the job, several members of the organization are worried about her plans for the federal office.
Greenville County School Board member Chuck Saylor said DeVos’ plan to offer a tuition voucher for students who want to move to a better school would widen the achievement gap between urban and rural schools. He said students in urban areas often have many choices on where to go to school, while those in rural districts do not have that same option.
“If [DeVos] and President Trump want to fund the voucher program where is the money going to come from?” asks Saylor. “If they can find new money, why are you not funding programs that are already in existence?”
But there is much more optimism among many of those same public schools that would benefit from so-called “school choice.”
South Carolina Public Charter School Alliance Executive Director Mary Carmichael said she thinks most of the opposition to DeVos is unwarranted. Carmichael said federal dollars account for only around ten percent of the state education budget and she believes that DeVos’ proposals will give local schools districts more flexibility in deciding how to use that funding.
“Quite honestly most of the conversations going on in D.C. are about returning a lot of the decision making to the states, into the local level,” say Carmichael. “If anything, I’d say local school boards are going to be more empowered.”
But Saylor says reduced federal funding hurts those rural schools which have a much smaller tax base than their urban counterparts. He said the limits often mean rural schools, “do not have the financial resources to serve their students at a higher level.”
Many schools in rural areas of South Carolina do not live in areas where local taxes fund the full cost of public education and federal dollars are needed to offset those costs. Fellow Greenville County board member Joy Grayson says if a school district can’t pay the difference, the onus falls on taxpayers.