Boyd and Jim column

Up close, even the most clear-cut,
polarizing issue turns gray

By Brad Warthen
Editorial Page Editor
LET’S SET aside all the partisanship and polarization and stupid name-calling for a moment to remind ourselves that when you dig into them deeply enough, things aren’t nearly as bad in our politics as they tend to seem. Or at least, not always.
    That’s because you have people involved. And people are more complicated, and therefore better, than the boxes we would put them in. God bless them for it.
    Look, for instance, at the S.C. House District 75 race in which Richland County Democrat and political newcomer Boyd Summers is challenging Jim Harrison, a 17-year veteran Republican representative and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.
    In his recent endorsement interview, Mr. Summers said one of the main reasons he was runningSummersmug_1
was that Rep. Harrison had swung to the “hard right” on such issues as support for public education. The incumbent has been a prime pusher of the “Put Parents in Charge” bill, which would use tax credits to pay parents to abandon public schools.
    The challenger is adamantly against PPIC because “I am firmly in favor of public education,” and he doesn’t want to see finite public resources diverted away from our schools to the private sector.
    Mr. Summers brags that he’s supported by the S.C. Education Association, while the Republican is on the side of “South Carolinians for Responsible Government,” an organization that exists only to push PPIC. It doesn’t get more black-and-white than that.
    But it does get less so. Mr. Harrison chafes at being painted as anti-public school. “I think you’ve got to look at 17 years, and not just one bill,” he says. And he’s right. Besides, he says, his two children went to public schools all the way through — Rosewood Elementary, Hand Middle and Dreher High.
    In fact, Mr. Harrison began his interview by aggressively challenging Mr. Summers’ support of public education, pointing out that his challengers’ two young children do not attend public schools. Of course, one of them is only 3 years old. But the older one, Mr. Harrison says he has heard, is in first grade at Hammond School.
    Not true, Mr. Summers says: The older child is in 5-year-old kindergarten at Hammond.
“What my wife and I have made,” he said, “is the decisions we think are best for each child.” OK, so what about the future? “We evaluate it on a year-by-year basis,” he said, and “we haven’t made any decisions yet” about next year.
    But, he insists, he is a firm believer in the importance of public education, and voters can rely on him to make policy on that basis — a confidence he says they cannot place in the incumbent in light of his advocacy of an extremely destructive idea.
    Has Mr. Harrison caught his opponent in a fatal contradiction? Maybe, maybe not. I understand him. I have always believed in public schools, yet our oldest children started their educations in a Catholic school in Tennessee. We switched to public in 1988.
    Still, I wasn’t running for public office on a platform of “I’m for public schools and he isn’t.” The issue is relevant. It gives voters in the district reason to question Mr. Summers’ level of commitment. He may have a good answer, but it gives them a good question.
    Mr. Harrison says it’s especially relevant because parents who live in Mr. Summers’ neighborhood behind the VA hospital worry that the local school, Meadowfield Elementary, hasn’t been doing well on the PACT.
    They believe, he says, that if parents in the community would “stick together to work to improve their school rather than bailing out,” it would show improvement.
    He said they felt parents turning to the private option were “not giving Meadowfield a chance.”
Not good news for Mr. Summers. But it also complicates things for Rep. Harrison. I couldn’t help pointing out that he had just described very well what was wrong with PPIC — that it would entice the most motivated, most involved parents to leave troubled schools behind, and those schools would only get worse as a result.
    He didn’t disagree. In fact, he reminded me that he had talked in his earlier interview about how he had been motivated to champion “choice” only for children “below a certain income level.”
    “I could live very easily without that provision in the last bill that gave a thousand-dollar tax credit, no matter where you lived and no matter what your income was,” he had said. “It ought to be focused on failing schools and low-income families.”
    Of course, PPIC had included the tax credit for the affluent, which was politically necessary to generate the bill’s only in-state constituency: those who already home-school or send their kids to private schools. And Mr. Harrison had pushed it in that form.
    Still, I had to sympathize with his lament that it was unfair to use that as an excuse to call him “hard right,” or anti-education, in light of his record otherwise. He said there was something wrong with a system in which “people in the middle that are trying to find some viable options get labeled as extremists.”
    I couldn’t agree more. Of course, I think his advocacy of PPIC is quite a bit more relevant to his public education credentials than where a Summers 5-year-old attends kindergarten.
    But I don’t think the issue is as up-or-down as the likes of SCEA and SCRG would have us believe.
Fortunately, they don’t decide elections. In this case, the voters of District 75 do. And they have a lot to consider.

9 thoughts on “Boyd and Jim column

  1. Randy Ewart

    Using my powers of prognostication, I see ideological bloggers posting how converting over to the market model will solve all problems. I also see them unable to justify any of this.
    Brad, I’ll beat the drum again. This may be the defining POLITICAL issue in education, but it does not address the major problems we face. I happen to agree with allowing motivated low socio-economic parents a choice of schools. But this is only a fraction of the issue.
    I think you give Rex a free pass by allowing him to be the “savior” of our public schools in lieu of offering up a detailed plan.
    Please put more meat on the bones of this issue.

  2. Randy Ewart

    Here are issues which I believe should be discussed:
    What is the purpose of education; Is it job training? To create an informed citizenry? Develop individuals who can interact in the world?
    Should we have a one size fits all diploma? Currently, the student making a 1600 SAT and going to Harvard gets the same diploma as the student who takes all tech classes and makes Ds.
    What do we do about students who are not successful in the cookie cutter model we now have? Students who fail 8th grade are either socially promoted or stay an extra year before moving on to hs. Students who fail out of hs either go to adult education or no where.
    If we are truly committed to having the best teachers, are we willing to ante up for this expense?
    Where’s the collective outrage over students who misbehave in school, taking time away from those who want to learn? School boards will respond to these citizens if enough speak out.

  3. Doug

    Richland 2 has had essentially the same core school board members for a dozen years or more and the three with the longest tenure (Anderson, Schellenberg, and Fleming) are all running for another four year term. If you want to see a change in our schools, we’re going to need a change in the school board. That won’t happen because the electorate is basically uninformed, ignorant, and apathetic. They vote for the name they recognize from the most signs.
    As for the Summers/Harrison race, I hope nobody thinks either of these two politicians will make any difference in our schools… their power to affect change is ZERO.

  4. Randy Ewart

    Doug, you make good points and what you highlight is why I take issue the super race and how it’s covered. If the dialogue is focused only on school choice, these other issues, many of which you brought up, are “side-lined”.
    I have a big beef with Brad on this issue. He’s in a position to highlight and give attention to these other issues. Instead, he narrows the focus to choice.
    As a result, most people, I believe, will vote for Rex if they want to “protect” public schools and will vote for Floyd if they want complete reform. It’s sad that such a important and difficult issue is simplified so much.

  5. Ready to Hurl

    The problem with Mr. Harrison is that you can’t be “just a little bit pregnant.”
    If “choice” is good for lower income folks AND the school system as a whole, then why would he discriminate against upper income folks? Why would he sentence kids “unlucky enough” to be born in upper income families to poor or failing schools?
    The pro-voucher evangelists on this board would have suckers believe that school “choice” is next to godliness. “Just BEEEELIEVE and our God will SAVE the chillen from DEMON socialist schools.”
    Mr. Harrison either swallows the purple kool-aid and BEELEEVES! or he’s a pretender dancing to the tune of the out-ot-state fiddlers.
    It’s pretty easy to see which poison he chose.

  6. Annee

    In my opinion we cannot escape this truth: Where you send your children to school speaks volumes about your attitudes and beliefs towards the local school system. Unless you just don’t care about your kids I suppose and most parents don’t fall into that category.
    But I agree with Randy’s questions above – they need to be thoughtfully answered – not just in SC but in the US. What is the purpose of schooling – and may I add – what is the difference between my responsibility as a parent and the responsibility of the schools! And I think that’s a big one – because more and more parents are leaving it up to the teachers to do the parenting – just ask most teachers in public schools today!
    I also agree with Doug – voting for one or the other isn’t going to change much in my opinion.
    Our conclusions however may be different – I don’t see politics changing schooling – the core issue is the heart – but I’m not going there today! Another important issue quite frankly is the TV and the computer. Ok, maybe I’m old fashioned (though my guess is I’m younger than most of you!)….but I really do believe TV is a major culprit concerning the problems we have in public schools today. Turn on any Saturday morning TV show – what do you have? Sassy kids who are beligerent toward adults – and adults who are just plain ignorant and “not-very smart.” – And what do most kids in America do when they are not in school (and many even WHILE THEY ARE IN SCHOOL!!!!) – watch TV and play computer games(I actually saw a program on TV – admittedly – not too long ago, where they had park rangers “introducing” kids to the outdoors – and the kids didn’t enjoy PLAYING IN THE PARK, climbing trees, seeing animals….why?? Because the grass made their legs and feet itch!! AAAAAA!!!) Ok – rabbit trail.
    My point is that I truly believe that TV particularly has so infiltrated, not only our children, but the young parents and the teachers that we are graduating from our colleges these days, that the attitudes learned, the morals picked up in the hours upon hours upon hours infront of the tube, are demoralizing and destroying this new generation – they can’t think logically or linearly, their attention spans are minute, they’re learning that sex any time anywhere with anyone is ok, that disrespectful attitudes are the norm….and you name it. And as we all know, if you can’t have a disciplined, peaceful, structured classroom environment – you will have little to no learning taking place.
    No – practice your right to vote by all means, and encourage others to do so – but don’t put your hope in politics. Change will only happen in our own homes and livingrooms – and around the kitchen table at supper time when we’re all together!!

  7. Brad Warthen

    I must say, that was a thoughtful exchange, considering the issue. Not very long, but thoughtful. I appreciate it.
    And welcome to Annee, who is new, I believe.
    Randy, I have lamented a number of times, in print, that it is a very great tragedy that we no longer speak of school REFORM in the political sphere in South Carolina. The governor managed to change that, along with the help of all that out-of-state money. Now, instead of talking about how to make the schools better, we’re essential talking about whether to have the schools at all.
    But I don’t accept service on having given “Rex a free pass.” I haven’t given Rex anything. I haven’t written about that race since the primary. Why? Because I’ve been doing one or two million other things.
    But — speak of the devil — a glance at my Palm tells me I will actually meet Mr. Rex Wednesday, at 11 a.m. That is when my “coverage,” to use the word loosely (news folks “cover,” we “pontificate” up here on the third floor) of that race actually begins.
    Don’t blame me, though, if PPIC looms larger than it should. I want to be talking about how to raise the graduation rate, or bring up the quality of rural schools, consolidate districts, etc. But it’s kind of hard to keep the sailors focused on repairing the boat when there’s a kamikaze heading for the superstructure.
    I actually wrote a column — a rough draft, really — about that very subject last week. I was lamenting how the “choice” nonsense makes it impossible to have normal, effective dialogue about the REAL problems facing the schools. But the column just didn’t work, because I was trying to explain more than I had room for. I started to post it on the blog anyway, but held it back because it was so rough. Maybe I’ll take another look at it.

  8. Herb Brasher

    Thank you for participating in this discussion. Too often this blog comes down to an argument between a few, and new contributions are like a breath of fresh air. Please continue to contribute.
    I don’t suppose very many will argue with you about change “in our own homes and livingrooms.” The problem is that too many don’t even sit around the kitchen table at supper time. What do we do for the children in these families where we cannot have the ideal, as much as we would like to? Just abandoning them to their destiny is no answer; not if we want our society to continue.

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