The PFPS Interview: Robert Lominack and Debbie Billings of South Carolina

Robert Lominack, Executive Director of Richland County Public Education Partners (RCPEP), and Debbie Billings, a parent and public school advocate in South Carolina affiliated with RCPEP, spoke with Nicole Ciullo, Research & Policy Associate at Education Law Center. Founded in 2018, RCPEP works to improve Richland County public schools by supporting and developing innovative initiatives that assist teachers, students, and families. The interview, which was conducted earlier in the legislative session, has been edited for length and clarity.

Nicole Ciullo: Robert and Debbie, thank you for speaking with us about RCPEP, the voucher fight in South Carolina, and your advocacy efforts. Please tell us about RCPEP and its mission, how you carry it out, and why private school vouchers are an important issue for your organization.

Robert Lominack: Richland County Public Education Partners is a relatively young and small organization. We've been around for about four years or so, and we really began with a primary focus on in-school programs. But we quickly realized that state level policies and funding decisions have a huge impact on what our districts are able to do. Right now we're in a pretty tough time in our public schools, and that's true across South Carolina and across the country. And so it seems like a particularly bad time for voucher legislation that will literally remove funding from our public school budgets and redirect it to private schools.

NC: Thank you for all of your work in those areas. Debbie, tell us more about yourself, your experience with the public school system, how and why you got involved in public education advocacy and how you connected with Robert.

Debbie Billings: I'm a parent of a 15-year-old. I’m a sociologist by training and a public health professional. And I really believe strongly in the power and the responsibility of the public sector to serve our communities. I want my tax dollars to go to funding strong public education. I'm the product of public schools from kindergarten through university through graduate school through a PhD. So, I believe really, really strongly in public education because I think it's a space in our increasingly divided country where, ideally, students, families, and communities can come together.

NC: Can you tell us a bit more about the public schools in Richland County and the state, including the student demographics and the challenges your public schools and students face?

RL: We've got about 780,000 or so students in our public schools, which educate well over 90% of students in the state. About 51% are white, 35% are Black, and 8 or 9% are Hispanic. Around 62% of our students live in poverty statewide. Now, obviously that varies widely from community to community, so you'll have some communities and some schools where well over 90% of the students live in poverty. That brings us to the biggest challenges: poverty-related stress, trauma, and the lack of resources to address those issues, both in the community and also at school. We’re way off the recommended ratios of social workers and mental health counselors, and that was pre-pandemic. Now we're in the midst of an adolescent mental health crisis of a lifetime.

DB: Just to build on that, the pandemic was shining a light on issues that already existed. One of them is internet access. We saw very clearly the restrictions or the limitations on internet access for so many kids that added layers and layers of difficulty for students to keep up. And there were students that literally disappeared from the system. I will point out that in South Carolina, we have three public access TV stations. We are capable of providing free internet access to everyone in the state, but we choose not to.

One other challenge that I really feel passionate about is needing more ways for kids to come together. That’s the beauty of the arts. With our emphasis on testing in this country, it feels like the arts, music, drama, and sports are the spaces that can really bring kids together from different communities, and yet we don't have those sorts of thriving programs in every public school.

NC: Let’s shift and talk about voucher programs in South Carolina and what’s going on this legislative session. Can you please tell us first about the historical context of vouchers in the state?

RL: The short version is that every year for many years, there has been some proposal, whether it's education scholarship accounts or more traditional vouchers, in the Legislature. I think it has not lost steam despite 15 years or so of not being successful in the statehouse.

NC: We know South Carolina currently has one voucher program for students with disabilities. What would you say the impact of that program has been in the state, and how would expanding the program impact students and schools?

RL: We've got the Educational Credit for Exceptional Needs Children, which is, as the title suggests, limited to students with exceptional needs. There are some huge differences between that program and the legislation that's before the statehouse now and the usual proposed legislation. One of the biggest differences is that the money that funds that program is not taken from public school district budgets. I think it serves around 1,500 to 2,000 students a year. The pending legislation that would create traditional voucher and education scholarship account programs would literally take money from a particular school district if a student from that district decided to transfer to a private school. And the limits on the number of students are much higher. The cap would be 15,000 students. [SB 935, an ESA voucher bill, has been amended and passed the South Carolina House and Senate; it is currently in conference committee.]

NC: Is there legislative and public support for the bills introduced this session, and do you think they're going to pass? Who is driving these legislative proposals?

RL: One of the things I've seen is that there are clearly folks who want to just absolutely tear down public education, burn it to the ground, privatize everything. I want to put those folks to the side for a minute because there are folks in the community who do not feel like their schools are serving them, and so there are times when these folks are genuinely trying to come up with answers. Well, that begs the question, why aren't we focused on serving all of the students and coming up with answers for all of the students rather than really narrow legislation that at the end of the day won't serve students in deep poverty?

DB: And correct me if I'm wrong, but those vouchers don't cover the full tuition. And so this to me is the part that is really puzzling, because we're talking about tuitions of $20,000 per year. My point being where exactly are they expecting people to get the remainder? And there are certain schools that were created during the Civil Rights Movement as a place for white flight. And so, that history is really relevant in this state.

RL: Whether you have vouchers or not, about the same percentage of kids are going to be in public schools, and so we should probably focus our attention on those if we want to help those families. And these private schools get to choose who comes to their school. This is not a parent's choice. I don't care how much a parent wants their child to go to a particular private school. That school gets to maintain whatever admission standards it wants, and it is allowed to discriminate based on religion, based on disability, based on sexual orientation, gender identity, and it can have some sort of standardized test as part of the admissions process as well.

NC: You mentioned several bills have been introduced in South Carolina during the past few legislative sessions. What happened to those bills, and how did you work to defeat them?

RL: Like I said, RCPEP’s relatively new to the statewide policy fight so we really tagged along with other organizations. It’s partly meeting with legislators, providing written testimony, providing public testimony at some of the hearings and also trying to make sure community members know what's going on and getting them involved. I will tell you that legislators would really like to hear from parents, probably almost more than anybody else. I think they hear the same thing over and over from lobbyists, or from executive directors of organizations, and so I think it's more meaningful to them when they hear from parents who are constituents of theirs. There are people from the Palmetto State Teachers Association, the South Carolina Education Association, the Public Education Partners of Greenville County, SC for Ed, and many others who are and have been for quite some time fighting this battle.

DB: And I'll just add, for me as a parent, it's following what organizations like SC for Ed are doing when they ask for support on legislation. For example, send a letter, send an email, give a call to your legislator. You could be at the State House every day, every minute of the day, and still not cover every single bill that's coming out.

NC: What are some of the benefits and challenges to these partnerships and working collaboratively with other organizations on these issues?

RL: There are huge benefits. They're phenomenal people, and some of these organizations are just working so hard and have a lot of knowledge and varied experiences that they bring with them. But the challenges are huge. I've got capacity issues, but so do other smaller organizations, and so trying to build a coalition with groups and organizations that also have other responsibilities throughout their year and have funding challenges and things like that can make it really difficult. We are often responding to legislation and fighting against it rather than being able to be more proactive and really start to tackle some long-term challenges. I’m hopeful that RCPEP will play some role in creating a single, statewide, non-membership policy organization that can then kind of be the hub and really partner with organizations all over the state to be able to start pushing some of the long-term fixes that we need for public schools.

DB: It’s like, enough with the defense, but where's the time for the offense, because we've got to defeat these bills, right at the same time as proposing positive legislation.

NC: What else are you watching out for this session, and do you expect more voucher bills to be introduced? Are there other types of bills in South Carolina that are attacking public education?

RL: There are dozens and dozens of bills that are education related. The bills I've been following the most that are not related to vouchers are the critical race theory-adjacent bills. A recent public hearing was a great example of larger organizations coming in and helping organize. So out of 30 speakers, I would say probably 20 to 22 of them spoke out in opposition to these bills. I really could not give more credit to the ACLU and LDF for the work they've done here and how important it is to have folks with that capacity come in and help organize people. By the time I spoke towards the end of the day, the legislators were sick of being beat up about the fact that they had totally mis-defined critical race theory. One of the representatives removed their name from one of the bills the next day. [At least some of the CRT-related bills have failed, and advocates are continuing to watch this issue.]

We've also got some really terrible, mean-spirited bills around precluding trans youth from participating in sports. I think this would be the seventh time this bill has been introduced. This is about inventing a problem that doesn't exist just to marginalize kids who are already some of the most marginalized in our schools, to benefit folks in their primaries.

DB: There’s a certain group of people in this state that want to create non-critical-thinking people to fill jobs, who don't question anything, and that keeps the status quo going. It keeps a system of inequality and inequity and a system of power and control going, and so it is very inconvenient for certain people in power to have informed young people and an informed populace, a critically thinking populace. The creation of a culture of fear for teachers is part and parcel of this larger kind of movement on the part of some of these legislators to just shut people down again and again and again, and this is not just isolated to teachers or to the teaching profession. We also have lots of legislation on reproductive health that creates a culture of fear.

NC: We know that litigation has been used as an effective strategy for blocking vouchers in South Carolina, including Governor McMaster’s attempt in 2020 to use federal COVID relief funds to establish a new voucher program. Can you tell us about the two recent cases, Adam vs. McMaster and Bishop of Charleston vs. Adams?

RL: Adams vs. McMaster came about when governors received COVID relief money that had some discretion built into how it could be spent. Our governor decided that he was going to use it to create a one-time, private school voucher plan. I did not think his use of that money was consistent with either the letter or the spirit of the actual statute that provided the GEER [Governor’s Emergency Education Relief] funding to the states. The governor was sued based on that plan, and RCPEP joined with Public Education Partners of Greenville County and filed an amici curiae brief in support of the plaintiffs in the case. And ultimately, the Court ruled in a unanimous opinion that this plan violated the constitutional prohibition on spending public money for private schools. And I'll tell you, our Supreme Court doesn't issue unanimous opinions a ton. And so I thought that was pretty striking, and it spoke volumes for how ill-conceived that idea was.

And about a year ago in Bishop of Charleston v. Adams (it's a different Adams), Catholic Bishops and others sued, claiming that the prohibition on spending public money on private schools was unconstitutional because it was based on historic anti-Catholic bigotry and racism. South Carolina's Constitution simply says you cannot spend public money for any religious or private school. It's not trying to limit it to a certain type of religious school or anything like that. But they lost because the judge ruled, among other things, they just didn't have standing for the main basis of their complaint, and the court said it did not appear likely they would win on the merits. [The federal district court subsequently granted summary judgment to the defendants, and the case is now on appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.]

I think the short-term impact of those two cases has been that tens of millions of dollars have not flowed to private schools. The long-term impact of those opinions is yet to be seen. I mean obviously the Legislature’s continued on with the ESA legislation, and they’ve tweaked it a little bit in ways that they think will make them constitutional, but we'll see. I'm sure there'll be challenges.

NC: Can you tell us a bit more about your experience regarding Adams vs. McMaster? Aside from litigation, what other strategies or advocacy have you employed around voucher issues? And how have you worked with community partners and other education advocates in those efforts?

RL: I thought our amicus brief and others did a very good job of making sure the court was aware of the context of how this money was being spent, and how far outside the spirit of the statute this money was being redirected. But that litigation is also a jumping off point for educating the community, because we were constantly letting people know where the litigation stood and what the arguments were. And I think that's a really important part of getting community members engaged, even if it's not like they can call Supreme Court justices and tell them what to do. It’s important for them to know this litigation is going on, so the next year when there is similar legislation proposing a similar plan, folks already have a context and an understanding about that and are already asking the right questions, which are “How can this be constitutional? What about the discrimination issues?” and things like that.

DB: For someone who is not a lawyer, to have an organization and people saying, “Okay, it doesn't end there. We need to educate the public,” and giving you talking points and an understanding so that then we can speak about the issues in an informed way, is so brilliant and so important because it could end just with the litigation and the decision. But there’s a profound awareness of “no, it's not done,” because it's going to come up again in some form. So that work is incredibly important for those of us who are not engaged in that direct process.

NC: Is there any advice that you would give to advocates working in other states?

RL: I think the biggest thing is to try to build capacity in a single organization that can then partner and provide capacity to other organizations across the state. It is so hard to build coalitions on the fly without a ton of notice and without a ton of time and be as effective, which is why some of the organizations like the ACLU, SC United, and LDF have such huge impacts. And so my biggest advice is to see if you can find in every state some organization that can provide that capacity, because I think it's needed long-term.

DB: I totally agree with that. There are organizations like that, and you can call them at any time and ask questions and get advice and really be engaged. And you'll become part of that movement, which is really important because I think a lot of people who don't get involved feel like it's going to be super daunting. I hear students, graduate students who I've tried to get involved, they're like, “But I've never testified before,” and I'm like, “All you’ve got to do is be yourself and say what you care about. You are a member of this community.”

NC: Debbie, do you have any tips for pro-public education supporters and parents who want to get involved?

DB:Find those organizations that exist in your community, in your state, and give them a call. Check out their website, see what they have to offer. I feel like it’s all about connecting with people. Maybe there's not an organization, but maybe there's a group of people. Your principal is your advocate, or maybe the superintendent of your school district. Tap into those people and ask them questions and ask them how you can get involved. I mean, it does take time. You've got to knock on the door, pick up the phone, or check the website for local resources to get involved. And if it doesn't exist, if you're one of those people that's got some time and the passion, start your own effort.

NC: Robert, any tips for pro-public education supporters?

RL: I think the pandemic has exposed how important public education is. I mean, but for our public schools, how many families would have gone without food for months and months, because they were doing tremendous jobs delivering food to communities while schools were closed and providing other services when no one else was. We really put a lot on our public schools besides just educating our kids, and I think that was really eye-opening to folks. And now the next step is for folks to really take that with them going forward. When we do get beyond the worst parts the pandemic, all the problems that existed before the pandemic will still be there, and so I really encourage folks to find ways with their individual schools so that they can get involved and advocate for what those schools need.

NC: Before we wrap up, is there anything else that you would like to tell us and our readers?

DB: Just thank you for doing this work. We can't let this system – that is flawed because it's a human system, public education – we can't let it just fall or sort of have the rug taken out from underneath it. One thing my husband and I do as parents is thank the teachers, and the administrators, and the support staff, and sometimes it just takes an e-mail or a visit. If you can, pop into the office and say thanks. I think people feel in a lot of ways, and rightly so, under a lot of attack. And so those expressions of gratitude are also incredibly, incredibly important.

Read the first installment in the PFPS Interview Series with Rev. Charles Foster Johnson of Pastors for Texas Children. PFPS is proud to share the important work being done across the country by public school advocates who believe, as we do, that public funds must be used to maintain and support public schools, not for private educational uses. More information is available about PFPS Advocacy, Research and Litigation.

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