South Carolina is a right to work state.

For many in the Palmetto State that distinction is a point of pride.

Workers here are free to make their own decisions about membership in, and payment of fees to, unions. The vast majority elects not to affiliate themselves with these groups.

Southerners have long been skeptical of the social and political ambitions of organized labor, and for good reason. Unions are seen by many as highly politicized groups, controlled by a small cadre of powerful full-time bosses. These groups are commonly identified with a history of leveraging huge sums of out-of-state money to lobby for controversial special interests.

In recent decades, a more economically based criticism of labor has emerged. While manufacturing has ground to halt across the Northern and Midwestern rustbelts, highly skilled production of automobiles and airplanes has expanded in the South. Lawmakers, business leaders and workers alike now realize that robust economic development – the type benefiting all members of the community – cannot thrive when powerful labor bosses pit workers against management in adversarial confrontations.

Still, there is one sector of the South Carolina economy where unions thrive and a powerful but self-serving minority constantly threatens the broader long-term public good.

That anomalous exception is the public school system.

In South Carolina the Association of School Administrators (SCASA) and the School Boards Association (SCSBA) are lobbying to lower achievement standards in public schools. While such a move might provide job security and political cover for their membership, it comes at a high cost to the parents and children in South Carolina.

The Associated Press (AP) has reported that SCASA and SCSBA, representing school bureaucrats and local politicians across South Carolina, are calling on the Education Oversight Committee (EOC) to drag its feet and even rework the grading policies of the newly adopted Palmetto Assessment of State Standards, or PASS test.

When South Carolina’s State Legislature replaced the Palmetto Achievement Challenge Tests (PACT) with the new PASS test, it did so in order to give teachers more timely and detailed information about students' abilities. It also adjusted the number of student performance tiers from four (advanced, proficient, basic, and below basic) to just three (not met, met, and exemplary). Now, as the EOC prepares to finalize details of how these rankings are applied to test scores, some Committee members argue that the original four-level grading offers a more rigorous standard that ought to be retained.

The PACT test had many problems. It was expensive and time consuming.

Still, the use of four rather than three student achievement levels made the test more rigorous than the new PASS, should the PASS be implemented with only three levels of student performance.

An employee of Data Recognition Corp, the politically connected Minnesota-based testing firm that develops tests for South Carolina, seems to agree. He told the AP that under the three-tiered design more students would fall into higher categories. In other words, without any measurable raise in scores, more students and schools would automatically “pass.” It may even be the case that a student answers correctly on just a portion of test questions and still receives passing marks.

SCASA and SCSBA are worried that continuing to use the same (more

rigorous) four level benchmarks will alert parents and lawmakers to real short comings in public schools. They are more concerned with public perception of school success than stringent evaluation of student achievement.

By working to weaken student assessment, these government employee unions (or self-styled “public sector professional associations”) are in the awkward and shameful position of using their taxpayer subsidized membership dues to fight against the very principles they claim to stand

for: equitable and effective classroom instruction for all children.

Their drive to water-down the academic standards South Carolina prides itself in threatens to make the EOC a virtual paper tiger.

In the private sector, South Carolinians have rejected the divisive posturing and political lobbying of self-serving labor activists.

Parents and taxpayers ought to approach the special interests and turf protection of SCASA and SCSBA with the same skepticism.

Tom Swatzel, the author, is Chairman of the Board of Directors for South Carolinians for Responsible Government, a watchdog and advocacy organization working to expand educational options for parents across South Carolina.

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