South Carolina Senate backs expanding school voucher program
South Carolina senators on Wednesday approved a scholarship accounts program that would vastly expand eligibility for private school tuition vouchers -- making them available to middle-class families rather than just those who qualify for Medicaid.
The House still must sign off on the proposal for South Carolina to enact the long-sought Republican priority that has seen a revived push nationwide in other GOP-led legislatures following pandemic-era school closures.
Republican senators made some consequential changes on its final day of consideration. The measure initially limited eligibility to families qualifying for Medicaid, which is usually about twice the federal government's poverty level. Now, middle-class families would eventually have access to the 6,000 vouchers funded by public tax money intended to help cover the cost of K-12 private school tuition and other expenses.
The cap changed Tuesday after multiple amendments passed. The Senate first expanded eligibility to include families with a household income up to 400% the federal poverty level.
Republican Sen. Wes Climer, of York, defended the amendment as extending the "extraordinary amount of opportunity" to "dual income, working class families."
"This is the core of the middle class in South Carolina," Climer said. "These are folks who ought to have the opportunity to send their children to a school of their choice by way of the program we're discussing here today."
Another amendment then created a bracket that more slowly expanded eligibility. The first year of the program would provide 5,000 vouchers for households with incomes 200% the federal poverty level. The second year would then set aside 10,000 vouchers for households making 300% the federal poverty level. The third year would allow 15,000 vouchers for households making 400% the federal poverty level.
By limiting eligibility on the front end, Republican Sen. Greg Hembree said the amendment would give lower-income children "the first bite of the apple" as the vouchers roll out and constitutional challenges arise.
"Instead of being a program that's strictly for children in poverty, it would now be a program for children in poverty and the middle class," Hembree said.
Democrats expressed fear that Republicans would continue to loosen the qualifications in future sessions until public schools are eventually fighting with private education over state funding. Sen. Marlon Kimpson called the effort "a gimmick and a trick to open the door to expansion."
Other members of the minority party criticized the amendments as altering Republicans' original purported goal of helping poor people living in impoverished districts and maybe limited by inadequate public schools. The newly expanded education scholarship accounts do not serve the working class, they said, especially when the average cost of private schools far exceeds the $6,000 provided.
Democratic Sen. Mike Fanning mounted a final challenge Wednesday in a lengthy floor speech before the Senate took what is usually a perfunctory vote. Senators had already voted 28-15 along party lines on Tuesday to give the bill a second reading.
"We now have exposed to the world: this bill has nothing to do with helping poor people to go to school," Fanning said in closing his remarks, which lasted over an hour.
James Pollard is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.