Rontrell's Choice

BRENDAN MINITER

Why a South Carolina teen has to work his way through high school.


At 16 years old, Rontrell Matthews has a better idea than most of his peers what an education is worth. This past summer, he made his way through this rural, poor community not far outside of Charleston to show up at the doorstep of Capers Preparatory Christian Academy. In his hand was his first paycheck, a meager sum of $32.86 that he'd earned making sandwiches at the local Subway shop. Spurring him along was a determination to buy his own way out of one of the state's many failing public schools.

School choice is always controversial, and often opposed on the grounds that it will undermine public schools, subsidize middle-class parents and cherry-pick the "best" kids for a private education. After meeting Rontrell in Capers' cramped conference room on a recent afternoon, it's hard to disagree that school choice in this state would help one of the best kids get a better education. Rontrell is now excelling in school, encouraging his younger brother to study hard. He has landed a partial scholarship and continues to work at Subway to pay part of his $400-a-month tuition bill. He's a good kid.

But as South Carolina's state Legislature now debates whether to allow parents to use a modicum of government funds to send their children to a school of their choosing, public or private, it's difficult to accept the objections of school choice on their merits. Rontrell freely admits that he was a problem student in public school, acting up in class and neglecting to hit the books. He might have just as easily given up. He notes his friends from public school still tell him that he's "stupid" for turning his paychecks over to Capers.

Founded in 2003 by Faye Brown, a 55-year-old retired public school teacher, Capers is one of a handful of "independent schools" that serve the state's rural poor. It operates out of rented office space, has a total of 42 students in kindergarten through 12th grade, and makes do on an annual budget of about $160,000 a year. Nearly all of its equipment — desks, books and the eight iMacs in its computer lab — were donated to the school.

The teachers who aren't volunteers make $8 an hour with no fringe benefits. Many of the kids show up without lunch. Often parents fail to make their monthly tuition bills.


The teachers who aren't volunteers make $8 an hour with no fringe benefits. Many of the kids show up without lunch. Often parents fail to make their monthly tuition bills. Only five students at the school come from two-parent homes, and most of the students are African-American. Each year, Ms. Brown is forced to dip into her retirement account to keep the school running. "It's robbing Peter to pay Paul," she told me. "I'll let the power bill go until they're about to shut off the lights and then I'm rushing down there with the money."

One place Capers isn't skimping, however, is academics. The school places a heavy emphasis on reading, writing and math. As a result the school's average SAT score, 1150, is 164 points above the state average, and this year the school expects every one of its graduates to go on to college. St. Johns High School, the public school these students would be attending if not for Capers, has an average SAT score of 788.

Education Superintendent Jim Rex, the only Democrat to win election statewide in South Carolina this past year, recently came out in favor of school choice, saying, "it's time to take the plunge." But his support comes with a caveat. He wants to limit choice to within the public school system, which would do precisely nothing to help Rontrell and his Capers classmates pay their tuition bills.

And it's not just the Capers kids who'd be left out of Mr. Rex's reforms. South Carolina students are, on average, dead last in SAT scores, trail the nation in graduation rates and turn in abysmal scores on proficiency tests in core subjects. There are an estimated 200,000 students across South Carolina who are poor and stuck in failing public schools.

Mr. Rex notwithstanding, there's now a groundswell of support for broad-based school choice. In recent weeks several thousand residents have rallied at the state Capitol and advocates have lined up bipartisan support in the Republican-controlled Legislature for creating a $1,000 tax credit for middle-class parents and a $4,500 state "scholarship" for poor kids in failing public schools that can be used to attend any school.


...he and his wife Charlene aren't sure how they'll pay the tuition bill coming due in June without one of the state scholarships now being debated in the Legislature. "It's hard," he told me. "We have just the one son and we want to do right by him."


Two years ago similar reforms were defeated in the state House by seven votes. But school-choice supporters picked up several seats in the last election, one of which is now held by Curtis Brantley, an African-American from rural Jasper County who picked off an incumbent in a Democratic primary last year. "It's time," he told me recently while sitting in his sparsely furnished office, "to try something new."

As a former public school official who, as he tells it, was forced into retirement after trying to reform the school system from the inside, Mr. Brantley is now becoming a powerful voice for reform in Columbia. And he was only too happy to organize buses for school-choice supporters from his district to attend the rally.

In Spartanburg, James Miller, a 34-year-old machine operator and second class petty officer in the Navy reserves, is hoping the state scholarships make it through the Legislature this time. Last year he was called up to active duty and shipped off to the Persian Gulf. He thought heading off to war would prove to be a hardship for his family. It turned out to be a blessing. With his hazard and other increased pay, he earned $4,000 tax-free each month, double what he makes as a civilian, and enough to pull his son Rodney out of a crummy public school.

Rodney is now thriving at a local Christian school, but Mr. Miller worries about next year. He's back from the Gulf and he and his wife Charlene aren't sure how they'll pay the tuition bill coming due in June without one of the state scholarships now being debated in the Legislature. "It's hard," he told me. "We have just the one son and we want to do right by him."


ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Brendan Miniter. "Rontrell's Choice." Wall Street Journal (March 6, 2007).

This article is reprinted with permission from The Wall Street Journal © 2006 Dow Jones & Company. All rights reserved.

THE AUTHOR

Brendan Miniter is the assistant editor of OpinionJournal.com. His column appears Tuesdays.

Copyright © 2007 Wall Street Journal


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