Editor’s note: John Warner, a venture capitalist and entrepreneur, writes the Swamp Fox blog about issues affecting the technology industry in the Carolinas and elsewhere.

GREENVILLE, S.C. – Education news last week highlights a tale of two cultures. One culture sets high standards, has faith in the power of human potential, and then celebrates success. The other creates significant penalties for missing minimum floors, resulting in fear and frustration.

In higher education, we have a wide variety of choices available to meet the individual needs of students. Several years ago, Clemson President Jim Barker set a goal of being a top 20 public university, intentionally engaging in a competition with peer institutions higher up in the rankings. Barker’s challenge to the university community created a vigorous, healthy debate on and off campus about what Clemson should be which has resulted in a strong consensus of the distinctive value Clemson will provide to students, faculty and the community. Clemson found out this week that it has risen to 27th in the US News ranking. Stripping out the substance of what caused the improvement, here is vocabulary that President Barker used in responding to the news:

“I’m very excited…I’m more encouraged… We’re seeing improvement… I’m happy to report.

Furman also rose in the rankings. Furman President David Shi, had an interesting response. While rejecting the US News measure of excellence, he also framed a positive vision for the university.

“It is much more important for a prospective student to find the college that is the best fit for him.”

I really enjoyed that response. That’s a very Swamp Foxy thing to do. Don’t accept the status quo of the market leaders, but rather define the competition on terms that better matches your strengths and minimizes your weaknesses. That’s a powerful, creative dynamic to put into play, and it works as long as you can get customers to buy it.

A very successful K-12 school, Gaston College Prep and Pride High, has achieved incredible success in a high poverty area with the vision: “Most students are black. They are poor. And they are scholars.” The Raleigh Observer noted the Swamp Foxy attitude of its founders.

“[The founders] weren’t trained in a traditional college of education and don’t spend much time worrying about the way schools are supposed to operate.”

The vocabulary of Gaston College Prep and Pride High reflects their optimism.

Discipline is tight. Excuses aren’t accepted… Accountability… Students are expected… Teachers quickly learn… Students soon learn.

Unfortunately this is an exception to the predominate culture of K-12 education. Rather than seeing best practices they could incorporate into traditional schools, the vocabulary of two NC public school superintendents about Gaston College Prep and Pride High reflected their defensiveness.

“Any school with voluntary enrollment enjoys a big advantage” … “questioned whether traditional schools could legally require…”

A recent article in the Charlotte Observer reported reported that five high-poverty middle schools must change how they’re run after failing to meet federal academic goals for a fifth straight year. Their vocabulary reflects fear and frustration.

“The schools will weigh unpleasant options… Schools in the Charlotte area and across the country facing penalties… Something has got to give… a large number of schools will likely face “draconian” consequences… Totally unrealistic… We can’t do things… “

A recent Furman publication, Collaboration and Discovery, highlights the exciting careers of Furman alumni, including one young second grade teacher’s first year experiences.

“I was as ready as I could be for my rookie year in the big leagues… Suddenly the rose-colored glasses came off – and I realized that I had a less-than-perfect class. Indeed, eight of my 22 students were considered to have “significant” behavior concerns… Additional issues emerged. Academically, it was a mixed group. Some students tested several levels above second grade. Others were on grade level, still others well below. I was forced to figure out how to differentiate my instruction for individual students. Parents were concerned about the classroom mix.”

She ended her report with words that gave me a chill. Trying to be optimistic, she said,

“Yes, my ‘pollyanna’ visions about teaching did give way to certain realities. But I am stronger for it.”

Here is one of the best and brightest from one of the best universities in the country, and her vocabulary is not that of a champion but of a survivor. We put her into one of the most incredibly difficult circumstances we can design. Then we’ll test her students and label her a failure because each individual demographic in her classroom doesn’t meet some artificial standard. This is insane. Ironically, she and her principals do not have the opportunity to do the one thing that David Shi has articulately said is critical to success, that is create a focused, distinctive, excellent education institution, because it is important for a prospective student to find the school that is the best fit for him.

All of this was brought to mind by a report published this week, The High Cost of South Carolina’s Low Graduation Rate, which starts with a devastating indictment of the current K-12 culture.

“Researchers from South Carolina and elsewhere place the [high school graduation] rate just above 50 percent, with rates among minority students lower than 50 percent. South Carolina’s graduation rate is the worst of all 50 states.”

The report observes:

“Perhaps the best-designed study [of how competition from private schools improves achievement in neighboring public schools]… indicates that an increase in the percentage of students enrolled in private schools equal to one standard deviation (or about 5.8 percentage points of total enrollment in South Carolina) is associated with a 1.7-percentage-point decline in the public school dropout rate overall and a 3.4- percentage-point decline in public school districts where at least 20 percent of students are non-white.”

The report concludes:

“An educational reform that would increase enrollments in private schools by allowing South Carolina children to attend the public or private school of their choice using public funds… will improve South Carolina public school graduation rates due to improved competitive incentives. We calculate that increasing the percentage of South Carolina children enrolled in private schools by 5.8 points would mean:

• About 35,794 additional students enrolled in private schools.

• Between 1,549 and 3,137 fewer dropouts from South Carolina public schools each year, due to the positive incentives provided by competition from private schools.

• Increased tax revenues and reduced Medicaid and incarceration costs of $5 million to $10 million as a result of the reduction in public school dropouts. What’s more, because dropouts use other social services and incur other costs not included in these three measurements, the total public benefits are likely to be much higher than these figures.

• Total public benefits of between $247 million and $501 million over an expected lifetime of 50 years for each class of reduced dropouts, since differentials in earnings, public assistance and incarceration rates between dropouts and graduates are lifelong patterns.”

Who knows if the estimates of the benefits of a modest school choice program in South Carolina are correct, but the direction of improvement is right. What is certain is that the current system of K-12 education is broken and bankrupt for at least half of the students in the state. And the results aren’t acceptable for the best students in the system: The better educated a SC student’s parents, the further he trails peers nationally.

The reason it is reasonable to believe a limited school choice program can create substantial improvement in existing public schools is because students seeking the best fit forces the public schools to change their culture to one that has high standards, has faith in the power of human potential, and then celebrates success or to go away and be replaced by a system that provides higher value to students.

The only real question is, do we ask the young second grade teacher to operate where “‘pollyanna’ visions about teaching did give way to certain realities,” or one where, “Most students are black. They are poor. And they are scholars.”?

The answer seems obvious to me.