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Rex Should Focus On Job - Not Politics

web posted January 18, 2008
Dear Editor,
A recent column authored by (SC Superintendent of Education) Jim Rex began with a verbal assault against South Carolinians for Responsible Government and our many supporters.  Responding to our critique of his so-called school choice plan, Rex calls us a "cancer" and describes us as "thuggish."  He then states, "His (SCRG President Randy Page) extremist attack is exactly what you might expect from an organization with a failed agenda, few friends and very little credibility."
My question to Mr. Rex is if SCRG has "a failed agenda, few friends and very little credibility," then why are you spending your time and our tax dollars responding to us?  It's because quite the opposite is true - and he knows it.
Rex can't defend his position against parental choice; he can't defend the sorry state of public education in South Carolina; and he can't defend the obstructionist tactics of the education-industrial complex.  So, what does he do?  In what is a time honored tactic, he attacks advocates of real reform and attempts to isolate and demean the effort.
Despite his baseless rhetoric, I'm proud to say that SCRG now has over 200,000 residents who have identified themselves as supporting our mission of advancing policies that promote both limited government and genuine school choice.  These supporters come from all walks of life from all over the state.  They include black and white families, rich and poor families, Jewish and Christian families, home school parents, private school parents, and yes, public school parents - of which I am one.
Rex and the education establishment are feeling the heat because they are losing the school choice argument.  Report after report shows the current system is not getting the job done, which leads to more frustration for families longing for an opportunity to find different learning environments.  Rex's column is a desperate attempt to divert attention away from the real issue of what to do about an underperforming system that cannot possibly be all things to all children.

In fact, the just released 2008 Quality Counts study by Education Week ranks South Carolina 41st in "K-12 Achievement" and 39th in the country in giving our children a "Chance for Success."   Among the contributing factors for both of these rankings are our:  53% graduation rate; 26% proficiency level for 4th graders in reading; 32% proficiency level in Math for 8th graders; 27 point reading gap between poor and non-poor 4th graders; 25 point math gap between poor and non-poor 8th graders; 46% postsecondary participation rate; and a 33% postsecondary degree attainment rate.

Add to these results the study's conclusion that South Carolina ranks 12th in state expenditures for K-12 as a percent of state taxable resources and 11th in the per pupil difference between lower income and higher income school districts, and Rex knows he can no longer afford to simply pay lip service to real school choice.  And that's exactly what his plans have done.  While we applaud any increase in public school options (which is being pushed by Rex), we continue to argue that Rex's plan actually ends up placing more power in the hands of education bureaucrats because they set the policies, limitations and restrictions.
As an example, look no further than Richland 2 - the model and basis of Rex's school choice plan.  Widely regarded as the most innovative school district with the most educational choices, it has slots for only 20 children in each of its 15 "choice" schools and programs.  That's a great start and should be duplicated, but what about the other 21,000 students in Richland 2?  Don't they deserve options too?  Of course they do.
The point is that Rex's plan limits educational choice to the government run system, which does nothing to truly empower parents.  The reality is that under the Rex system of choice, government bureaucrats will be making the criteria that only a select few will have the opportunity to enjoy.
Empowering parents - not the government - is real reform.  But Jim Rex does not want to hear that so he has turned his ire towards SCRG and its supporters.  Instead of engaging in gutter politics, I would encourage Jim Rex to truly practice what he preaches, when he says, "Increasing innovation, expanding choices and empowering parents are ideas whose time has come. But we can only create meaningful options for all parents and all students by increasing options within the schools that serve us all."
As we have said before, the only way to make that statement a reality is by embracing comprehensive school choice that includes both the public sector and the private sector - thus truly stimulating innovation via expanded choices and empowered parents.
Tom Swatzel
Murrells Inlet, SC
Editor’s note: Tom Swatzel is the founder of South Carolinians for Responsible Government, a statewide grassroots organization that advocates education reform through school choice.  He is CEO of Captain Dicks Marina in Murrells Inlet, SC. 

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