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State and local school leaders impatient with their own inabilities to fix our struggling education system are once again flailing to find overnight solutions to a problem they allowed to get worse for decades. Education leaders in Charleston and Columbia are eyeing the policy equivalent of get-rich-quick schemes that will ultimately rob South Carolina schools of taxpayer dollars needed to effectively educate our next generation.

It’s more of the same: reinvented riffs on unpopular, unproven, unaccountable programs that siphon public money to bankroll privately run schools. Ultimately, these cynical strategies are about crippling trust in public education, not improving it. Less money for public schools means even less opportunity for most of South Carolina’s  students, particularly low-income families who depend on public education for a way up.

Just last week, we saw a resounding rejection of private meddling in public schools. With angry lawmakers asking questions and a line of protesters set to speak before a Charleston County school board meeting, first-term trustees pulled a vote on a $31 million program floated by the Coastal Community Foundation that would facilitate more private operation of public schools.

Charleston County Councilman Henry Darby, also the principal of North Charleston High School, said nearly two dozen local principals stood against the measure. Darby accused school board members of “assiduously and surreptitiously” pushing the blockbuster measure without public input over the Christmas holiday, bookending the unexplained ouster of the district superintendent.

In Charleston, philanthropists have aggressively funded programs to change how our schools are governed. Trustees have ceded control to third-party operators like Meeting Street Schools while privately funded dressed-up dark-money groups like the Charleston Coalition for Kids and Charleston RISE, in turn, push the district to take advantage of GOP-backed “innovation school” policies that also open the door to outside groups.

We’ve seen this nonsense playing out for years in Columbia with proposals to expand so-called “school choice” and charter school programs in South Carolina.

Politicians whose relevance and campaign donations are tied to rich education privatization supporters will try to convince you a new voucher program is not like the old one. They’ll tell you education dollars should follow students — even if that just means rich parents will use your tax money to pay $20,000 instead of $25,000 per year per kid at that exclusive prep school.

This year, Republicans in the state legislature are framing vouchers as Education Scholarship Accounts (ESA). Don’t let them fool you — they’re no public policy magicians. It’s vouchers again.

Vouchers are nothing more than a government handout for the middle class and rich, plain and simple. And worse, they do nothing to solve the underfunding problem continually facing South Carolina schools.

An early attempt last year to mask vouchers as ESAs was nothing new for Todd Jaeck, executive director of S.C. Education Association.

“Cloaked in language like ‘choice’ and ‘scholarship,’ this bill attempts to create the illusion that it is providing opportunity,” he told Statehouse Report, City Paper’s sister publication, last year. “However, the reality of the bill removes opportunity from many children by taking sorely needed funds from the schools and institutions that must accept, welcome and educate all children.”

Lawmakers returned to Columbia last week, and they’re already talking about Education Scholarship Accounts. This fight is far from over. Pay attention and call your lawmakers to voice your disapproval.

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