A Hobson’s Choice: South Carolina’s 4K Expansion or School Vouchers

I’ve been patting myself on the back, a bit too soon, it now seems. In my first legislative “season” down at Gervais and Main, I’ve spent a lot of time in cramped meeting rooms, working with an unlikely coalition that has come together to help South Carolina’s most at-risk children start kindergarten with the skills they will need to be on track when the high stakes testing begins four years later. The South Carolina Child Care Association, the Office of First Steps, the State Department of Education and the United Way Association of South Carolina have put most of our differences behind us and agreed to support a much-needed expansion of a pilot program allowing poor children to start kindergarten at four years old. The House bill, H3175, is not perfect, but it’s a start towards creating a system that can show long term gains for children who are most at-risk of failure.

Since there aren’t enough classrooms in the public schools to serve these children, and the taxpayers have little stomach for building any more, some of these 4K classrooms will be in approved private, for-profit child care centers, church-run preschools and non-profit agencies. They will use tested, approved curriculae and have to meet higher than normal pre-school standards. The standards aren’t as high as they should be, but the members of the coalition have held hands and sung “Kumbya,” hoping that a public-private solution would bring innovation and success. In the Senate, Senator Nicky Setzler’s Select Committee on Early Education is set to introduce a companion bill. We’ve counted the votes, and it looked like 4K was fast-tracked towards state-wide implementation.

But now it’s threatening to come undone. It seems that our old friends from “Put Parents in Charge,” the so-called school-choice proponents, have seized on the 4K bill as a way to channel your tax dollars into private schools. Rumor (and this town is always bubbling with them) has it that, when 3175 hits the House floor for debate, the Choicers’ legislative stooges will introduce an amendment that would offer vouchers and tax credits to parents who send their children to private schools. There have been no committee hearings on the amendment, no public testimony on its effects. (In fact, we’ve been unable to get a reliable copy of its exact wording.) A number of lawmakers have reportedly been threatened in telephone calls from the Choicers. And that’s going to kill this bill. The United Way and the State Department of Education will withdraw our support. Most lawmakers will run the other way. And South Carolina’s poorest children will continue to start school behind and stay that way for their entire time in school.

The Choicer’s have tried to position their private-school pork bill as helping the poor. In reality, if this amendment passes, it will be a massive tax-payer funded boondoggle for private organizations, without oversight, accountability or transparency. And South Carolina will continue its near-last-in-the-nation status in education.

That’s a choice all right, a Hobson’s Choice. Which, if memory serves, is no choice at all.

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