- - Monday, February 18, 2019

Back in the day, when public education meant something other than an opportunity to indoctrinate young people into the political ideology of the left, the “Three Rs” used to refer to work in the classroom. Nowadays, it seems our children are more likely to be learning about resistance and rebellion than they are reading, writing and arithmetic.

With this change comes some very practical concerns. The nature of work is changing. The kinds of good jobs and good wages that used to be available for a lifetime departed this country for points south and far east long ago. Now the jobs that replaced them are threatened, not so much by the threat they’ll be moved offshore as by the chance new technology will come along that eliminates the need for a human component.

That can’t be changed. But it’s a transition that can be managed provided we start early and in the schools. We need to put a greater emphasis on individualized education that meets both current and future needs of students without placing an undue financial burden on the parents. In South Carolina, we’re trying to do just that, to get ahead of the curve and keep our economic renaissance going.

During my time in the legislature, I’ve sponsored 86 education-related bills on topics ranging from the need to improve vocational and technical education to women’s education in our state. My colleagues and I have made a dent in the problem, but there’s still a long way to go.

In my district, which encompasses about 40,000 people, the high school graduation rate is just over 90 percent. Some might say we’re doing well, but I say they miss the important points.

South Carolina is in the top half of states on spending per student, but our education system is ranked 50th. Students are graduating — in high numbers and at a great cost to the taxpayer — but we need to do a better job of preparing them for the jobs and world of tomorrow, while revamping what is clearly a broken system. In other words, we need to spend smarter not more.

That’s why I along with 58 of my colleagues have taken the lead and introduced legislation, South Carolina House Bill 3681, that I hope will be a model for the nation. House Bill 3681 empowers parents in a very real way to take the bull by the horns and get their children into the schools that will have them ready for the future by the time they’re done. It does this by establishing Equal Opportunity Education Scholarship Accounts.

We already have such things at the college level. New approaches to funding educational opportunities like 529 accounts and programs to lock in tuition rates through pre-payments are helping reduce the costs to families and allowing students to graduate with less debt than might have otherwise been the case. But that’s not enough. These new scholarships we’re proposing would make South Carolina the most choice-driven state in the nation.

We believe, and there’s plenty of data to back it up, having choice in elementary and secondary education produces better outcomes. Test scores are higher. Students perform better in other ways and seem, believe it or not, to get more from the experience because they enjoy it more. By increasing student participation in and student access to educational opportunities within and outside of their resident school district, regardless of where they live or their socioeconomic status, we’re offering them a brighter tomorrow.

The South Carolina General Assembly intends that the provisions of this chapter be construed broadly to maximize parental choice options and student access to customized, high-quality educational opportunities presently unavailable to their children. The need is there and must be addressed if my state, as well as every other, is going to remain competitive in the global economy as technology changes things.

By moving the innovations post-secondary opportunities down into the area of primary and secondary education opportunities, we’re maximizing the chance kids have to benefit from the education they’re given. They benefit, whether they’re on track to college and graduate school or they want to go directly into the workforce once they graduate. As South Carolina House Speaker Jay Lucas recently observed, there are more than 64,000 jobs left unfilled in our state because “our students don’t have the technical expertise to fill them.”

That’s a crisis that needs to be addressed now. Expanding choice for parents and students regarding where they go to school by providing them the means to take advantage of opportunities not currently available to them, we will.

• South Carolina State Rep. Garry Smith is a professor of political science at North Greenville University and chairman of the American Legislative Exchange Council’s state chairmen’s group.

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