Ep. 37: New SC Private School Survey with Shaunette Parker

February 28, 2018

In this episode of EdChoice Chats, Shaunette Parker, executive director of My South Carolina Education, joins us on the show to talk about a new private school survey report with one of the report’s co-authors, EdChoice Director of State Research and Policy Analysis Drew Catt. They delve into common arguments for and against school choice locally, concerns parents and private school leaders have about choice programs and, of course, what the data say about it all. To download this brief, visit Exploring South Carolina’s Private Education Sector.

Drew Catt: Hello. I’m Drew Catt, and welcome back to EdChoice Chats. Today, we’re discussing a new EdChoice brief, Exploring South Carolina’s Private Education Sector. My co-author Mike Shaw and I surveyed leaders of South Carolina private schools on a range of topics, which we are excited to discuss today with Shaunette Parker, executive director of My South Carolina Education. Now, before we get into this new research, Shaunette, would you tell our listeners what educational choice options South Carolina currently provides parents?

Shaunette Parker: Sure. I’m excited that South Carolina has been growing as a state, and that it understands parents have effective education options to choose from. Currently, parents are able to choose from traditional public schools, public charter schools, magnet schools, virtual schools, private schools, homeschools and special schools that offer residential options. Parents are even beginning to customize options, and they’re piecing together multiple school choice options. More importantly, South Carolina’s been ranked 18th in its spending towards private school choice, as a result of the tax-credit scholarship program.

Drew Catt: That’s great. We did ask private school leaders about their awareness of tax-credit scholarships and education savings accounts. Half of South Carolina private schools already know about the concept of education savings accounts, or ESAs. More than two-thirds of private schools are familiar with tax-credit scholarships, the type of program you mentioned South Carolina already has. How would you say awareness is locally of these types of school choice options among schools and families? Could you describe some of the efforts on the ground to educate school leaders about choice programs?

Shaunette Parker: Well, you know, it seems that awareness on a local level is a bit limited. When I’m in conversation with different families, most of them say they’ve heard something about tax-credit scholarships, or education savings accounts, but they’re not very familiar with the details. It seems that their understanding of these programs gets lumped into the larger conversations about vouchers. Through My SC Education, my goal is to better educate the public about these types of choice programs. We’ve started by linking information on MySCEducation.org. We’ve also begun grassroots organizing to increase our ability to educate the community. The My SC Education Parent Power Initiative will focus on educating a group of parents about school choice in South Carolina, and then in turn these parents will become community educators.

Drew Catt: Very cool. The data show high percentages of South Carolina private schools say they would, or probably would, participate in these types of school choice programs, which is positive for school choice advocates. One thing that does hold private school leaders back is the potential burden of certain regulations that come with these programs. What are you hearing from private school leaders in terms of their concerns with choice programs, and what specifically is giving them pause, in your experience?

Shaunette Parker: Right. Well, as you probably know, most private schools have a religious affiliation. It seems that there’s some concern about state and federal involvement in these schools, because there’s the fear that there would be a demand to change some of their programmatic pieces related to religion. Also, private school leaders like having the autonomy to make changes and decisions without having to file for special permission. Many private school leaders want the freedom to make the in the moment decisions wherever necessary. I also think there’s a concern over academics. Many private school leaders will say they are focusing on a curricula that isn’t always in line with the state required curriculum. That doesn’t mean that it’s behind it. In most cases, these leaders would say they’re above and beyond state requirements, but they may have some differences when it comes to sequencing, or how the curriculum is taught, so there could be some fear in making some decisions around curriculum.

Drew Catt: All right. Well, I’m excited to talk about how the data from this survey informs some of the common claims made about school choice. EdChoice is a national organization, so we hear lots of arguments on a national scale. We hear people say, “There’s not enough space in private schools to fill the demand choice programs create.” “Private schools don’t accept students with special needs.” “Private schools are still too expensive, even if families get scholarships or vouchers.” Do you hear some of these claims locally? Could you give us a sense of the local sentiment before we talk numbers?

Shaunette Parker: Right. I even have to put myself into this. As a parent of a student who attends a private school, I hear this all the time. I often have to even talk parents down from some of these assumptions, when I mention to them that I have a child that goes to a private school. I just think there’s a lot of the misperceptions about private school education, and I can honestly say that before I even began sending my child to a private school, I had some of the similar assumptions, until I started getting more information. I’ve also heard some of these same arguments when I work with parent groups across the state. It definitely is something that we’re working to change.

Drew Catt: Interesting. Well, the good news is, we now have some data to look to. When it comes to the question of whether there’s enough supply to meet demand, we found that South Carolina private schools have at least 7,734 open seats. That’s just the number of seats as reported by the respondents in our survey. We’ve projected an estimate of all South Carolina private schools open seats to be about 20,000. How did you react when you first learned about these numbers?

Shaunette Parker: You know, honestly, I was a bit surprised by these numbers. It may just be because of the work, and the work I’ve been doing through My SC Education, has really been focusing on the areas of South Carolina that don’t have a large number of private schools. I think I had a perception that there weren’t enough open seats, and a lot of my work has really been trying to push and say we need to grow our private schools. It was really heartwarming to know that there are a lot of open seats, and that as we grow within our spending and funding for different private choice options that we do have a lot of open seats to fill.

Drew Catt: Yeah. Well, pivoting to questions of inclusiveness in private schools. We found 79 percent of South Carolina private schools serve students with special needs, and at least three serve students with special needs exclusively, at least based on those that replied to our survey. How does that jibe with what you experience with families on the ground?

Shaunette Parker: You know, I’ve actually found that a major reason why some parents are choosing private education is because they’re looking for schools that can meet the needs of their children, whether their child has special needs or not. But I’ve found that some parents have children with more of those challenging special needs who choose a private school, even if they’re not known for serving special needs, primarily because the school is smaller and they feel like that particular school would be able to really focus and serve their child well. A lot of times, parents aren’t even looking for the schools that have these publicized large programs that say they serve special needs. A lot of times, it’s just having more of that one-on-one attention for their child.

Drew Catt: Yeah. Finally, I wanted to touch on the cost of attending private schools in South Carolina. We see a lot of people are surprised to learn what the median tuition rates are for their state’s private schools. There’s often this general sense that private schools are only for the uber rich. Our data show that there are some outlier schools that do cost more than 20,000 a year. That’s true. But, the median cost to attend a private school in South Carolina is actually only $5,210. On top of that, we found that 57 percent of private schools in South Carolina offer their families financial assistance to attend their schools. Shaunette, I want our listeners to have some context. How much do South Carolina schools spend per pupil each year, and what could this cost data mean for the families you work with every day?

Shaunette Parker: Right. Well, depending on the county that you’re in in South Carolina, we spend between $8,700 to a little more than $19,000 per pupil each year on public education. I really don’t think that people realize this. If parents were able to access some of those dollars through an education savings account, this would make an amazing difference in education. As you pointed out, the median cost of attending a private school in South Carolina is $5,210. I know that there are several schools that actually fall below that price point. More importantly, if South Carolina was able to have an education saving account program, parents would be able to access other supplemental programs and still spend less than what we’re currently spending on traditional education per pupil each year.

Drew Catt: Yeah. That’s so important. Before we sign off, is there anything else you’d like to add?

Shaunette Parker: I’d just like for everyone to really think about the importance of having choice in education. I want people to realize that education is not one size fits all. We really have to focus on putting the children first in education, and think about making the changes that will best benefit the children. Sometimes, this may mean that we’re going to have to make financial sacrifices on the federal, state, and local level, and it may even mean that families are having to make some of those tough sacrifices within their own households. But at the end of the day, it’s really the children that count, and we really just want to focus on creating the best education systems for those children.

Drew Catt: Yeah. Shaunette, thank you so much for joining us today.

Shaunette Parker: You’re welcome. Thank you for having me.

Drew Catt: That’s all for this episode. Thanks again to our listeners for tuning in. As always, be sure to subscribe for more EdChoice Chats, and we’ll catch you next time. Take care.