When Mark and Jenny Sanford moved from Charleston to Columbia, S.C., they had a big concern: Where would their kids go to school? They wanted to send their kids to public school, but the middle school near their new home was not particularly good. But it turned out that this wouldn't have been a problem for the Sanfords because the reason they had moved to Columbia was Mark had just been elected governor. While students are normally assigned to schools based on where their house is located, Gov. Sanford's family was offered special options: People from better school districts invited them to send their kids to those schools.
"And I said, well, that's not fair," first lady Jenny Sanford told me. She asked one school official whether her neighbors were stuck with their local school, and he said they were. "But we're going to waive that requirement because you're the governor."
Caught between taking advantage of that special privilege and denying their sons a good education, the Sanfords escaped to private school, an option that many other Americans, once the taxman has taken his cut, cannot afford. It was an option Gov. Sanford, especially after this experience, didn't think should be reserved for the rich or the powerful. He said state tax credits should help parents pay for private schools.
From the uproar the governor's plan generated, you would think that South Carolina had a great school system in place and that the governor wanted to demolish it. But it doesn't, and he didn't. South Carolina has a school system where half the students who enter high school fail to graduate in four years, a system so bad that the state's first lady thought that sending her sons to their zoned school would "sacrifice their education." And the governor didn't propose to abolish the public schools. He just tried to introduce competition. Public schools that could convince families they were providing a quality education would still have had plenty of students.
Living in America, we have plenty of examples of how competition improves lives. The phone company was once a government-supported monopoly. All the phones were black and all the calls expensive. It was illegal to plug in an answering machine. (Installing a foreign device, the monopoly called it.) But once AT&T lost monopoly status -- poof! -- suddenly customers mattered. Now, thanks to competition, you get a number of calling plans to choose from, and phone calls are much more affordable -- whether you choose AT&T or not.
Competition is, in general, better than monopoly -- and in this case, the monopoly was already failing. Even if you're not a big fan of the free market, why would you want to preserve a monopoly that's obviously doing a bad job? How could allowing choice possibly have been worse than keeping students trapped in failing public schools?
The governor announced his plan last year. Thousands of parents cheered the idea. But most public educators and politicians didn't.
School boards and teachers unions objected. PTAs even sent kids home with a letter saying, "Contact your legislator. How can we spend state money on something that hasn't been proven?"
(Apparently, it was better to spend state money on something that had been proven not to work.)
The governor's plan "would decimate public education in South Carolina, and it's just not good for us," said State Representative Todd Rutherford.
The teachers union paid for ads that argued schools were getting better. Legislators obediently voted down the governor's plan, 60-53.
The state superintendent of schools, Inez Tenenbaum, was relieved. "It was an unproven, unaffordable, and unaccountable plan," she told me.
It may have been unaccountable in the bureaucratic sense -- lacking the arbitrary supervision of some appointed head honcho -- but it would have been the essence of accountability in a much more meaningful way: Schools would have had to satisfy students and parents, or they would have lost their customers.
And unproven? Yes. It was unproven because the bureaucrats, the teachers' unions and their legislative allies are vigilant in their efforts to prevent anyone from trying it. They've gotten their hands on America's children, and they have no intention of letting go.