By Robert Holland

For the past year, South Carolina lawmakers have focused on a major education reform plan. Unfortunately, their plan will likely not include the most significant education reform possible: school choice.

Therefore, it was disappointing to read a recent column in The Post and Courier arguing Palmetto State families do not need school choice after all. Instead, Jamie Cooper, executive director of Communities in Schools of the Charleston Area, argues South Carolinians need another supposed panacea imposed from on high: social-emotional learning (SEL).

Cooper asserts “SEL is a vital and necessary component of education, not just another thing to add to the plate of teachers and administrators but the very plate upon which all other content should be placed.”

Apparently SEL, not arithmetic or reading, is the foundation for all learning. According to Cooper, “SEL instills the competencies of self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills and responsible decision-making within the daily life of the student.” Of course, he offers little evidence to support this audacious claim.

Cooper then explains that, “Developing these competencies equips students with the confidence to face life’s challenges and empowers them to persevere through barriers placed in their way, such as poverty and hunger, that too many of our students struggle with each day.” Once again, Cooper is heavy on rhetoric and light on data.

In other words, this is a classic boilerplate response regularly served up by one of the biggest drivers of universal SEL: an outfit known as The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL). Indeed, the five so-called “competencies” cited by Cooper are the very same five that CASEL has developed with foundation and federal support into a design for systemic implementation. In SEL world, the apple does not fall from the tree.

As always, student assessment is a major piece of this scheme. Yes, the powerful collaborators envision schools testing students on their psychological qualities. Beware, this is a slippery slope. Parents should not allow government officials to probe their children’s emotions, attitudes, and dispositions. This is deeply personal and private information, well outside of public-school prerogatives. Anyway, public schools can barely educate students. Why would we wish to entrust these ineffective institutions with even more responsibility.

Piece by piece, this elitist contraption is slipping into place without parents being able to give an informed aye or nay. This should set off all types of alarm bells. The same thing happened with the deeply flawed Common Core standards a decade ago.

Meanwhile, as New Age fads such as SEL and Common Core have intrude ever more on family privacy, public support for choice in education has flourished. The 13th annual EdNext survey directed by scholars at Harvard University’s Kennedy School shows a solid majority of citizens now want policymakers to take the next big step in school choice: Make it universal, not just narrowly targeted at needs based on income or disability. Free choice in education should be for all.

As recently as 2016, public opinion was evenly split on this issue: 45 percent favored universal vouchers, 44 percent opposed. Not anymore. The 2019 EdNext poll shows 55 percent supporting universal vouchers for private choice, and just 37 percent opposed. That is a remarkable shift in just three years.

It is reasonable to assume Palmetto State parents desire a choice in the kinds of curricular (or extracurricular) programs presented to their children. And when they object to agenda-driven schemes such as SEL and Common Core, parents surely would relish the opportunity to choose more appropriate schools that respect a family’s aspirations, privacy, and values.

Just ask them.

Robert Holland ([email protected]) is a senior fellow for education with The Heartland Institute.