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SC News

SC House considering its own private school voucher bill

School Choice
Jeffrey Collins/AP
South Carolina House Ways and Means Chairman Murrell Smith, R-Sumter, poses with children from a Florence Catholic school on Tuesday, Feb. 8, 2022, in Columbia, S.C. The students were there to support a school choice bill. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins)

Leaders in the South Carolina House appear to be pushing their own bill to give poorer parents money to pay tuition at private schools.

A House subcommittee approved a bill Tuesday that would create a three-year program to give $5,000 in tuition assistance to 5,000 students whose families are eligible for Medicaid or who have parents in the military. The money can only be spent for tuition fees or books.

Unlike some other voucher programs, the money wouldn't come out of the state budget for public schools, instead being pulled from a contingency fund, House Ways and Means Chairman Murrell Smith said.

The pandemic has both increased support for school choice and made people who already backed the idea more passionate, Smith said.

"Parents want a voice in their children's education and they want a choice in their children's education," the Sumter Republican said.

Smith said representatives are still working on the language of the bill, acknowledging the suggestions of teacher and school board groups. They have said the proposal needs to add that schools getting the money can't discriminate against religion or gender as well as a number of other categories already in the bill such as race.

They also will consider a request that all students getting the tuition assistance take the same standardized tests so parents can more easily compare schools.

The full House Ways and Means Committee will consider the proposal Wednesday.

Rep. Wendy Brawley said she thinks parents should be able to send their children to the school of their choice, but the state should fully fund public schools before paying private school tuition.

"We are willing to set aside $75 million for this program but we are not wiling to pay the amount per student that we are required to pay under the constitution," said Brawley, a Democrat from Hopkins.

A Senate subcommittee plans another hearing Wednesday on its own voucher bill, which would allow parents to spend up to about $7,000 of public school money on private schools as well as tutoring, equipment or other needs.

Eligibility is different too. Any student whose family makes less than twice the federal poverty limit — about $53,000 for a family of four — or is eligible for Medicaid could enroll .