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After years, South Carolina appears set for school vouchers

South Carolina Rep. Shannon Erickson, R-Beaufort, speaks in favor of an education voucher bill on Wednesday, April 26, 2023, in Columbia, S.C. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins)
Jeffrey Collins/AP
South Carolina Rep. Shannon Erickson, R-Beaufort, speaks in favor of an education voucher bill on Wednesday, April 26, 2023, in Columbia, S.C. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins)

The South Carolina House gave key approval to an education voucher bill Wednesday, likely clearing the way for up to 15,000 students to be able to use public money for private school tuition.

The bill passed on a 79-35 vote with a few Republicans joining Democrats to vote against the proposal. After one more routine vote the bill heads to Gov. Henry McMaster, who has promised to sign it into law.

Allowing parents to spend money to send their elementary, middle and high school children to a private school has been a goal of conservatives since former Gov. Mark Sanford was voted into office more than 20 years ago.

They said parents should have the freedom to send their children to whatever school educates them best and the idea will help public schools, too.

"The key here is competition is not a four-latter word," said Republican Rep. Shannon Erickson, chairwoman of the House Education Committee.

The bill, which passed the Senate in January, establishes what are called education scholarship accounts. Parents and guardians can get up to $6,000 a year to pay for tuition, transportation, supplies or technology at either private schools or public schools outside their district.

The program could expand to as many as 15,000 students over several years or about 2% of South Carolina's school age population.

The proposal will cost about $30 million next year and could cost as much as $90 million if it reaches capacity.

"This is a bill that empowers parents," Republican House Speaker Murrell Smith said.

Opponents of the bill said South Carolina needs to work on improving its public schools before sending people to private schools.

"Our state has failed public education for a long time," Democratic Rep. Justin Bamberg said. "Public school is the place where everyone is supposed to get educated regardless of who you are or where you come from. It builds character."

A legal challenge is expected almost as soon as the governor signs the bill. The South Carolina constitution prohibits using public money to benefit private educational institutions.

As they work on getting the two-thirds support needed to put the issue back before the voters to change that constitutional provision, voucher supporters said the program doesn't directly send money to private schools, which courts have found illegal. Instead, parents can access the state-funded account, which is an indirect payment allowed by the law.

They also are working on a bill to allow for a student to attend any public school in the state, including outside their school district if they pay tuition.

Democrats said Wednesday that Republicans stifled their changes to the bill, which were all rejected, and prevented a robust discussion by almost immediately voting to limit debate when the bill first came up.

Smith said the matter had been thoroughly debated last year when supporters thought they reached a compromise with the Senate just to have it fall through right as the 2022 session ended.

This year, the House kept that from happening by agreeing to the Senate version.