AIKEN - A House of Representatives committee heard for the first time Thursday from Aiken County residents with passionate opinions about school vouchers -- most of whom despise them.
For many, the main argument against them boils down to fairness.
They say that, as they see it, the great majority of poor children will never be able to take advantage of them because states will never have the money for tuition assistance for all the poor children who might want it.
That and other opinions were voiced by most of the residents who spoke at a public hearing to gather information about a House bill that would let children go to private schools or public schools in other districts on vouchers.
About 300 people -- most from the educational establishment -- met in the cramped quarters of the Aiken County Council Building to hear the argument. Many crouched along its walls, waiting for a vacant seat. And the man who penned the legislation, Rep. Lewis Vaughn, R-Taylors, wasn't there to defend himself.
Reed Swann, a member of the South Carolina School Boards Association, says Mr. Vaughn's bill is based on two foundations, one of which is that an open-market economy promotes competition.
But there can only be competition when the competitors play by the same rules, Mr. Swann said. And that isn't happening because the basic rules are different. Private schools can and do select their students. Public schools can't.
"Reducing state support and providing minimal voucher amounts to parents will not provide a reasonable and successful alternative to the majority of the schools in our state," he said. "If we are serious about education as a priority, our budget and allocation of resources must reflect that.
"As a nation and as a state, given our historic priority for national defense, the Senate Subcommittee on elementary, secondary and vocational education put forth this question, `Imagine using vouchers for defense on the assumption that everyone could hire a militia.'
"Would we not give 1 ounce of credence to such a proposal as regards the defense of our state and country?" Mr. Swann asked. "Does it deserve any more when it deals with the education of our children?"
Those who believe in vouchers ask why the poor should not have the same chance at private schools as the better-off. They say for some students, vouchers could represent salvation from a system in perpetual disrepair, even if they offer just a fraction of poor children a way into the lifeboat of private schooling.
Taft Matney, of Greer, says vouchers are a way to get attention from public school educators, and legislators still hope to save them.
"It's time to try something different," he said. "People always say if something isn't broken, don't fix it. But South Carolina's educational system is broken. Vouchers will force schools to fight for what they receive.
"If schools want more money, they should get it," Mr. Matney said. "But they should be made to earn it first."
Comments from Thursday's meeting will be presented to House of Representatives Speaker David Wilkins on Nov. 30.
Reach Chasiti Kirkland at (803) 279-6895.