More than a paint job

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If your house were falling in, would you listen to a contractor who only suggested painting the shutters?

Of course not. So why listen to South Carolina officials who are content to paint the shutters of a public education system that, by every measure, is failing the state's children?

Consider:

- For the second straight year, no school district in the state met federal guidelines for student achievement.

- In a Johns Hopkins study of "dropout factories" across the nation - those high schools where no more than 60 percent of freshmen end up graduating - South Carolina leads the list with approximately half of its high schools categorized as taxpayer-funded dropout factories.

- Democratic candidates for president have followed the lead of a film documentary in referring to the state's I-95 "Corridor of Shame" for its failure to provide an education worthy of American children.

Clearly, the minimally adequate education the state's constitution calls for won't cut it.

Admittedly, the state's rural schools are struggling from the erosion of American manufacturing jobs in recent decades, and the tax base and family incomes they used to produce.

It's the high price of cheap imported goods.

But all the more reason for South Carolina officials to be more creative, even radical, in fixing the public education system in the state.

One "radical" idea is to empower parents to exercise choices in where they send their children - and opening the government monopoly on education up to competition, both public and private.

We appreciate the fact that state Education Superintendent Jim Rex is proposing school choice - and says, flat-out, that "I do think this is an idea whose time has come." We agree.

But we respectfully suggest the superintendent's school choice over the past year have been woefully modest and far short of what's necessary to provide hope to South Carolina parents and students. Indeed, that is why Gov. Mark Sanford vetoed the proposal last year, which would have essentially allowed parents to send their children to schools in any district.

That's not a bad start. And Rex this year wants to encourage districts to experiment with magnet schools and specialized curricula.

But that's tinkering around the edges. It's painting the shutters. And it's akin to telling AT&T customers of decades ago that they could purchase phone service from any company, as along as its name ended in AT&T. That's not what happened: Phone service was opened up to true competition. As a result, services and technology have mushroomed, while prices have remained competitive.

No judge has ordered true competition in education - yet. But it's coming nonetheless, as street-wise consumers see choices in nearly every other aspect of their lives - except the most important aspect: their children's education.

South Carolina can choose to cling to its failing government monopoly on education - and continue seeing other states' children pass South Carolina's "dropout factory" products by - or it can embrace change and welcome the kind of free-market competition in education that makes nearly every other area of our lives better.

What's the risk? Can any South Carolina leader truthfully say radical change might make public schools worse?

In truth, the only real risk of radical innovation in South Carolina schools is to the entrenched bureaucracy - the very bureaucracy that is failing South Carolina's children every year.

The age-old argument against true school choice - allowing parents to take state education money to the public or private school of their choice - is that it will hurt public schools.

Well, yes. It will hurt, even close some of them. The ones that can't compete, that is.

Remind us: that's a bad thing how?


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