Political ‘false choices’ are crippling our state
By Phil Noble
Neil Robinson is a man who should be listened to.
He is an eminent Charleston attorney with a prestigious statewide law firm. He is highly respected by his peers and community as testified by a wall crowded with commendations and accolades. With his head full of white hair, his well-tailored suits and his air of quiet confidence, he has a distinguished and slightly imposing bearing.
But none of this is why we should all listen to him.
He is the Chairman of the State Education Oversight Committee (EOC). The EOC is an independent, nonpartisan group made up of 18 educators, business people and elected officials who have been appointed by the legislature and governor to enact the South Carolina Education Accountability Act of 1998. The Act sets standards for improving the state’s K-12 educational system.
When it was passed, the legislation was sponsored by all the right people in the Legislature and was approved by both the House and Senate unanimously – not a single dissenting vote.
One would assume that therefore the EOC would be extremely powerful and effective in shaping and reforming education in our state – but one would be wrong.
As Robinson explains, the EOC has very little real power to affect change. They can study issues, make recommendations, gather data and research, and consult with the best experts in South Carolina and around the country.
They can do all manner of things – other than pass legislation and affect real change. It all ends up in the hands of the legislature.
One former member of the EOC said probably the most effective thing he could do would be to light his hair on fire and run through the Statehouse passing out recommendations – “other than that, no one pays us much attention.”
This is not to say that the 18 members of the EOC are not dedicated, sincere, smart and talented people. They are, but they have no real power to make the needed changes.
This situation with the EOC is a perfect example of the ‘false choices’ that abound in South Carolina politics, especially in the Statehouse. It goes like this: set up a simplistic choice between Option A and Option B and force the political debate on these terms – when in reality, neither are the right answer. The outcome is more of the same.
Most often the framing of the two options is based on knee jerk, rigid ideological politics (liberal or conservative / Democrats or Republicans) and not facts, or policy or what’s needed. It’s a lot easier for politicians to hurl partisan insults than develop effective policies, i.e. good outcomes.
EOC, False Choice #1: Appoint a committee to come up with good ideas to improve education (Option A) or stick with the status quo and do nothing (Option B). The outcome is to create a committee but give them no power to do anything.
Education Spending, False Choice #2: When I was meeting with Robinson, he gave me an analysis of spending per student in each of the state’s 83 school districts compared to the number of students that were college ready in reading and math.
It was shocking.
On average statewide, we spend $12,696 per pupil and the percent ready for college is only 29% in reading and 23% in math.
As shocking as these numbers are, what is more shocking is the comparison of what we spend and get in the various school districts. Let’s look at those districts where we spend the most and the least.
In analyzing the top and bottom ten districts’ spending (and kicking out the two outlier districts in each group), here is what we find:
Top Spending Districts: average $17,221 per student with scores of 10% readiness in reading and 3% in math.
Lowest Spending Districts: average $9,926 per student with scores of 27% in readiness in reading and 22% in math.
Clearly there are lots of other factors related to performance other than how much is spent, but the pattern of false choices is clear.
Instead of doing real work to figure this out, it’s a lot easier to revert to false choices. Option A – increase education spending or Option B spend less on education. The outcome, we get spending that is unrelated to outcomes.
State Government Spending, False Choice #3: There is probably no policy issue that is a better example of false choices than overall government spending. Option A: traditional liberals/Democrats say we need more government spending because we have so many problems in the state that need fixing. Option B: traditional conservatives/Republicans say we need less government spending so people can keep more of their tax money and spend it on what they want, not what the government wants. The outcome is across the board spending cuts or increases.
The real issue should be what is effective, what provides the most return on investment or what issues are most pressing. Instead, either side wants to raise or cut spending and so they take the simplistic way out – they split the difference by raising or lowering spending. This principle of split the difference applies not only to overall state spending but it filters down to the political horse trading of spending on individual agencies and programs.
This same false choices problem extends to a myriad of other issues: more or less regulation, shorter or longer sentences for criminals, corporate or individual taxes … it goes on and on. It does not have to be this way.
What’s needed is a basic common-sense approach not distorted by ideology or special interest lobbyists. We need to ask: does it work, is it effective, is it really important, will it save money in the long run, what is the cost if we do nothing?
There is no Democratic or Republican way to fill a pot hole. We need to insist that more is not better, less is not better – but better is better.
We will only find solutions to our problem when we realize it’s really about change vs. status quo, about openness vs. closed government, about reformers vs. political insiders, about the people’s interest vs. the special interest, about new innovative leaders vs. corrupt career politicians.
We are a great state and we can do great things – with big change and real reform.