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SC high court weighs private school voucher law as House leaders push expansion proposal

The exterior of the South Carolina Supreme Court building in Columbia, S.C. where Aug. 9, 2023, justices overturned the murder conviction of Carmie Nelson of Summerville calling autopsy photos presented at trial prejudicial.
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The exterior of the South Carolina Supreme Court building in Columbia, S.C. is shown Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2023. (AP Photo/James Pollard)

The South Carolina Supreme Court on Wednesday, March 6, 2024, heard arguments over a state law that offers families meeting certain poverty thresholds public money to pay for private school tuition, among other education-related needs.

The South Carolina Supreme Court on Wednesday heard arguments over a state law that allows families meeting certain federal poverty limits to access public money for private school tuition.

It's unclear when the five justices will decide whether the law signed by Gov. Henry McMaster last year is constitutional.

But leaders in the Republican-controlled South Carolina House aren't waiting to find out.

The House fast-tracked legislation this week that, if passed, would allow thousands more families to access millions of dollars in public money for their child's education.

House Speaker Murrell Smith, R-Sumter, and House Education Committee Chairwoman Shannon Erickson, R-Beaufort, filed the bill, H. 5164, last week to expand the so-called Education Scholarship Trust Fund.

Smith said he is confident the court will uphold the law.

But, if they don't, Smith told reporters last week that it does not mean a "death knell" for school choice.

Their proposal would eliminate limits for families to apply for money. It would also strike out a measure in current law that says a student must have attended a South Carolina public school in the previous school year to apply.

If expanded, applications would first be open to students already enrolled in the program, then their siblings. They'd be followed by new participants, which would include children of active duty service members, students in the custody of the state's Department of Social Services or foster parent, and students who meet the state's definition of "exceptional needs child."

Right now, the state offers a $6,000-per-student voucher that can be spent on private school tuition, among other education-related needs like transportation, textbooks or tutoring. The vouchers currently include an enrollment cap that at the third year is limited to up to 15,000 students.

If a change to the law is approved, the expanded version would strike the cap, allotting so many vouchers depending on how much money the Legislature spends per year.

An initial fiscal impact statement attached to the bill says an estimated total by year three of the program will cost nearly $106 million.

If the law is expanded with no cap limits, the S.C. Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Office says it estimates there could be up to 185,000 students who apply by 2027-'28.

On Tuesday, House and Senate Democrats chided their Republican colleagues, arguing the proposal is nothing more than an "open check" for the state to pull money away from public schools.

"Many of the Republicans who are authoring, and sponsoring, and writing and pushing these type bills are so far removed from public education they couldn't find a school with a map," said state Rep. Roger Kirby, a Florence Democrat and assistant House minority leader.

Senate Minority Leader Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, said lawmakers should instead focus on ballooning classroom sizes and teacher pay.

The latter was echoed Wednesday by state Supreme Court Chief Justice Donald Beatty, who said the total cost to run the program with a 15,000 student cap could hire more than 2,000 additional public school teachers.

"Yet we want to shift all this money to private schools to keep them afloat," Beatty added.

The justices will decide whether the 2023 law violates a part of the South Carolina Constitution that bans direct aid to any school other than public schools.

Attorney Ramya Ravindran said the money would be going into a "state-controlled trust fund," arguing the program is illegal.

But attorneys who spoke in support of the law, including for the state Department of Education tasked with administering the program, told the justices the money would be going to parents first and not directly to the private school itself. Therefore, they argued, it's not unconstitutional.

It's unclear whether the expanded proposal will make it through the Senate.

Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, told reporters recently that the Legislature should give the program time to work before lawmakers change it.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Maayan Schechter (My-yahn Schek-ter) is a news reporter with South Carolina Public Radio and ETV. She worked at South Carolina newspapers for a decade, previously working as a reporter and then editor of The State’s S.C. State House and politics team, and as a reporter at the Aiken Standard and the Greenville News. She grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, and graduated from the University of North Carolina-Asheville in 2013.