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SC lawmakers, educators find common ground in school choice

School Choice
Jeffrey Collins/AP
Palmetto State Teachers Association Executive Director Kathy Maness speaks to a South Carolina Senate subcommittee on Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2022, in Columbia, S.C. Maness is also a Republican candidate for education superintendent. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins)

In a South Carolina General Assembly session that has already shown some sharp divides between lawmakers and teachers and school administrators, a school choice bill has them trying to sing from the same sheet of music.

The bill would require every school district in the state to offer some type of program to send children to a school outside their zoned areas and to allow children to go to a school in a different district. A Senate subcommittee rekindled the proposal at a meeting Wednesday.

Subcommittee chairman Scott Talley listened to representatives of teachers, administrators and school boards who said they support the goals of the proposals with a few tweaks. The Spartanburg Republican didn't call for a vote on the proposal

"Let us have some time to digest what we have heard and what has been presented," Talley said.

The bill would put some limits on choice — schools, classes and programs can't get overcrowded, students have to meet eligibility requirements for special programs and expelled students can't use choice to switch districts. Students who go to a school outside their attendance zone would have to find their own transportation.

One point of contention with the bill from educators was a requirement that schools let parents know within 10 days if they can go to a school they choose. Some special school programs and magnet schools have tryouts and interviews, which can take weeks to complete and rate.

There also is a question of what would happen to the school district's share of the money it provides for a student if that student were to attend a school in different district.

We "strongly support the expansion of true school choice," said Palmetto State Teachers Association Executive Director Kathy Maness, who also is running this year as a Republican for education superintendent.

Other education bills in various committees this session don't have that kind of support from educators. A voucher bill has them worried money that could be spent to improve public schools will go to private ones instead and several bills dealing with how race, history and other topics are taught has teachers fearful their subjects will be watered down or they could be singled out for teaching tough topics.

Republican Sen. Dwight Loftis introduced the open choice bill after his granddaughter managed to use a choice system in Greenville County schools to get into a robotics program offered by a middle school outside her attendance zone.

The special classes ignited a passion in engineering that she is following into college, the Greenville Republican said.

"It offers greater opportunity for children to move to things they enjoy," Loftis said.