The latest outrage from South Carolina is truly startling. A few weeks ago, the State Board of Education elected a new chairwoman, and get this: She's a homeschooling mom!
That's right. Incoming chairwoman Kristin Maguire doesn't think South Carolina's public schools are right for her own kids.
The reactions to Maguire's election from the local public school establishmentarians suggest that they're a bit nervous about having a chairwoman who won't toe their narrow line. "While she does read the material and come prepared, she represents an extreme, right-wing view," warned former State Education Superintendent Inez Tenenbaum. "She looks at every decision by the board through a right-wing lens."
South Carolina Democratic Party chairwoman Carol Fowler was less politic -- if that's possible -- than Tenenbaum. "Having Kristin Maguire chair the Board of Education is akin to Dick Cheney teaching a gun safety course," Fowler zinged. "What does a woman who home-schools her four children know about South Carolina public schools?"
The answer to Fowler's question is probably "quite a lot." At the very least, Maguire -- who attended public schools herself and has one parent who was a public school teacher -- knows enough about the public schools that, on top of the taxes she pays to support them, she's willing to bear the cost of homeschooling for her own children.
It's no secret that many Palmetto State public schools are woeful. Only about a third of South Carolina's fourth- and eighth-graders are "proficient" in mathematics according to the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress -- the so-called "Nation's Report Card" -- and only about a quarter are proficient in reading.
Then there's the state's graduation rate. Estimates differ, but several recent analyses suggest that only around 50 percent of South Carolina students graduate high school with a regular diploma in four years, the worst rate in the nation.
Perhaps it's this poor academic performance that's made the state a major school-choice battleground, though reformers have so far been stymied. The most painful setback came in 2005, when by a vote of 60-53 the state House of Representatives killed a bill that would have provided maximum tax breaks of about $3,700 for parents who paid for private schools.
The argument went: If parents want private schools, they should have to pay for them after taxes. And of course everyone should have to pay for public schools, even if they find what's being taught in said schools to be distasteful or offensive.
Precisely because they force everyone to pay for public schools, opponents of school choice ensure that they'll have to keep fighting to maintain the status quo. As Maguire's election shows, they could very well lose out to people who, if they were allowed to keep their money and make their own educational choices, would just as soon leave everyone else alone.
Homeschoolers, private-school parents, citizens without school-aged children -- all are taxpayers, and therefore all have the motivation and right to determine what happens in the public schools. You pay, you get a say. The same applies to believers in intelligent design, abstinence-only sex education, multiculturalism, gay rights, and all of the other hot button issues that cause constant turmoil in school systems all over the country.
There is a simple solution to this problem, though members of the state House might not like it: Instead of giving education money to a single system of public schools, let parents choose where the money will go.
Because their tax dollars will go toward the education they want for their children rather then the current one-size-better-fit-all system, the threat of those "right-wing" homeschoolers taking over the public schools should evaporate overnight.