Back in the old days, children used to play leapfrog, where one child would jump over the stooped back of the child in front of him. Then that child would stoop and the child left behind would repeat the process. If there was an object to the game, it was to use the progress of the person in front of you to propel yourself forward. Obviously, this game was played before the advent of video games when children were more easily entertained.
In business, “leapfrog” describes the actions of newly formed companies who quickly propel themselves past more established companies through the use of innovation. With the rise of the technology age, this process has accelerated. We need only look around our houses to see a wide range of leapfrogging examples. Consider how smart phones have surpassed cell phones which surpassed land phones. Apple trumps Motorola which trumped AT&T. For those of us over forty, we can still remember the days when AT&T had a government supported monopoly over telephone usage. Once the monopoly was removed, a host of competitors arose to challenge AT&T which resulted in new technology, cheaper phone rates, more choice for the consumer and most importantly, a competitive AT&T.
Leapfrog also accurately describes the global transformation of the economies of developing countries such as India and China. By using new technology and innovation, and more importantly, not having a substantial investment in old technology, these countries are seeing amazing growth in per capita income, even during the global financial crisis. They are set to leapfrog America and the European Union. Their competitive challenge will make us better – or obsolete.
South Carolinians have long realized that education and economic development are mutually dependent. We know that we cannot compete in the global economy without quality education. Based on this knowledge, we continue to refine our excellent university and technical college systems. In fact, the quality of our technical college system remains one of our best tools to recruit new businesses to our state. To grant broad educational opportunities to our citizens, we established an education lottery that grants scholarships so that students can attend public or private South Carolina colleges – the student has the choice.
In South Carolina’s K-12 districts, the innovations have been more sporadic. For example, the Greenville County School District, along with private and corporate supporters, has shown great foresight in establishing A. J. Whittenberg, the new engineering-focused elementary school. This school reflects the path to where Greenville’s economic future lies. Few other school districts are following a similar path. Statewide, these innovations remain the exception because the K-12 educational process remains monopolized. Furthermore, the global financial crisis and our own government debt prevent us from increasing funding – a method that has improved education in the past but whose returns have diminished over time. As a result, parents have stagnant educational choices and students suffer.
However, global competition demands that we take action to reform our K-12 educational system now. Remember, in this age of rapidly advancing technology, any process held captive by monopoly will improve from leapfrogging once the monopoly disappears – and these improvements are not limited to economic development. Examples from other states are showing this observation to be true in education. A decade ago, under the leadership of Gov. Jeb Bush, Florida passed school choice legislation that introduced competition into their educational system. In addition to the school choice legislation, other complementary bills have passed such as improved methods to accurately measure school and teacher performance, advances in digital learning and other reforms. As a result of these innovations, student achievement scores have risen in all age groups in both public and independent schools. Other states have passed similar school choice legislation with Georgia being the most recent example.
The South Carolina Legislature now has the opportunity to seriously consider the benefits of a comprehensive school choice plan. The Education Opportunity Act, which was recently introduced in the South Carolina, establishes a framework for educational innovation through the use of tuition tax credits. This bill would increase the performance of public schools through competition, open the door for further education reforms, allow corporations and individuals to fund scholarships for low income students and most importantly, give parents across South Carolina the opportunity to choose the most appropriate school for their child. If we fail to take action soon to bring this type of statewide opportunity to our K-12 students, we will end up playing leapfrog alone while our global competitors leave us in the dust.