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SC Senate approves allowing public money for private schools

Shane Massey
Jeffrey Collins/AP
South Carolina Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, speaks during a debate over a bill that would allow parents to spend public money for private or out-of-district schools on Wednesday, March 30, 2022, in Columbia, S.C. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins)

The South Carolina Senate late Wednesday gave key approval to a bill that would allow some poorer or disabled students taxpayer money to attend a private school or a public school outside their district.

The 25-15 vote overcomes a big hurdle that advocates for school choice and vouchers have been trying to top in the state for nearly two decades.

After one more routine vote, the bill goes to the House, which has been more agreeable to the idea in the past.

The bill provides up to $6,000 in state money each year. Along with tuition, the money could also go toward textbooks, materials, education services or equipment for disabled students.

The program would be limited to students whose family income is low enough to make them eligible for Medicaid and students who have disabilities that require a formal plan for their education from a school district. More than half of the state's 781,000 students could use the program.

The "education scholarship trust funds" would be limited to 5,000 students the first year before reaching a permanent cap of 15,000 students the third year. If the program reaches its maximum, it would cost $90 million a year, House Majority Leader Shane Massey said.

"This is not a silver bullet. This doesn't solve every problem in education, but it solves some," said the Republican from Edgefield who has worked on the bill for most of this year.

The proposal is the evolution of nearly 20 years of Republicans pushing to put money into providing more education choices for parents. Problems with online or in-person classes during the COVID-19 pandemic gave the legislation more urgency. Sponsors tailored the bill toward poorer families or those with special education needs.

Opponents of the program said it likely violates the state constitution, which prohibits spending public money on private or religious schools. They said $6,000 doesn't cover the full tuition at some private schools and poor students can't afford to make up the difference.

They also contend that a fairer solution would be to put more money into education, especially in poorer areas, instead of concentrating on a plan not popular with educators.

"We're making an argument that we're doing things that really makes us feel good and we leave here thinking we made a difference, but we're putting a small bandage on a really bad, hemorrhaging problem," said Sen. Darrell Jackson, a Democrat from Hopkins.

A number of changes have been proposed to the bill over four days of debate, but most were rejected.

More conservative senators had their proposals rejected to either expand the program to more students or allow families with higher incomes to take the money if poorer families didn't fill all the slots.

Proposals to prevent private, religious schools that take the money from discriminating over sexual orientation or disabilities were also rejected.

If a student leaves a school district, the per pupil spending from the state for that student is no longer taken away. Private schools that take the money would have to give students the same standardized tests as public school students for accountability.

A similar bill is on the House floor. The House proposal would create a pilot program and uses money that isn't already set aside for education. It has yet to be debated.

Lawmakers are also considering bills that would allow school choice both within school districts and across district lines under some circumstances.