September 27, 2022

The Nerve

Where Government Gets Exposed

Voters back school choice bill. Can lawmakers get it across the finish line?

By RICK BRUNDRETT

S.C. residents generally support using public money to allow children to attend private schools, a South Carolina Policy Council poll shows – and a key negotiator on a related school-choice bill says he’s pushing to get it passed.

It remains to be seen whether the Republican-dominated, 46-member Senate will give final approval to the compromise bill – known as the “Put Parents in Charge Act” – when the Legislature reconvenes Tuesday.

But Sen. Greg Hembree, R-Horry, an attorney who is the Senate Education Committee chairman and a member of the conference committee on the Senate bill, said he’s working with other “legal minds” in the Legislature to find a way.

“It’s not going away; we’re not quitting,” Hembree said when contacted by The Nerve last week after the bill stalled in the Senate. “We are razor close.”

Another conference committee member, Rep. Shannon Erickson, R-Beaufort, who was a co-sponsor of a similar House bill, told The Nerve this week she will work on school choice legislation next year if necessary.

“If I’m going to be an advocate for children, I’m going to always try to be looking for what the children need in the spectrum of what our state dollars should provide,” said Erickson, who for years has operated preschools in the Beaufort area.

Retired educator and conference committee member Rep. Bill Whitmire, R-Oconee, said when contacted this week he hopes the compromise bill will become law this year, noting, “Parents need a choice whether they want to send their child to a public school or a private school, and I thought this education scholarship account was a good way to do it.”

The poll released this month by the Policy Council – The Nerve’s parent organization – found that of 606 likely voters statewide, about 52% approve of the proposed school-choice program for private K-12 schools, with support rates of 64%, 45.5% and 39% among Republicans, independents and Democrats, respectively.

The respondents were asked whether they would approve of a state-funded scholarship program for low-income students to attend private schools of their choice, and were informed that the cost per student would be equal to or less than what the state currently pays to educate those children.

“Lawmakers are on the verge of delivering a much-needed win for South Carolina families,” said Dallas Woodhouse, the Policy Council’s executive director. “Our poll shows that voters understand the value of giving parents more control over their children’s education. The scholarship program is a great first step in that direction.”

Besides school choice, the poll, conducted by Tennessee-based Spry Strategies from May 31 to June 3, sought responses to questions in a variety of areas, including tax cuts, inflation, energy independence, election reform and confidence, and school board transparency. The margin of error was a plus or minus 4 percentage points.

The Nerve last week reported about the poll results on tax cuts and a compromise tax-relief bill, which will provide one-time rebates to eligible taxpayers this year, combined with lowering the top individual income-tax rate to 6.5% from 7%. The rate gradually will reduce to 6% over five years if revenue-growth projections are met.

Complete results of the poll can be found here.

The compromise school-choice bill easily passed the Republican-controlled House on June 15 by a vote of 85-14. But it stalled later in the Senate during a debate that stretched into the night.

The bill would provide maximum $5,000 scholarships in the first year of the program to a total of 5,000 mainly low-income students in the state, based on Medicaid or Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) eligibility, to attend eligible private or public schools selected by their parents. The maximum number of scholarship students would be 5,000 in each of the following two years and 15,000 annually in subsequent years.

The bill would designate $75 million in state surplus funds for the program.

Private school needs

Contacted this week by The Nerve, the leaders of two statewide organizations representing private schools say they support the main goals of the bill.

“It’s a benefit to the low-income families, and those are the people I feel sorry for,” said Edward Earwood, executive director of the South Carolina Association of Christian Schools, noting the bill would “allow us to serve more kids.”

Said Spencer Jordan, executive director of the South Carolina Independent School Association, “Most of the parents we talk to – public and private (schools) – think there is a need for school choice in South Carolina.”

Meanwhile, in a related matter, the U.S. Supreme Court in a ruling released Tuesday said religious schools couldn’t be excluded from a Maine program that offers public tuition assistance for private education – a decision that supporters contend will help protect religious schools nationwide against government discrimination.

As of April this year, there were 777,111 S.C. students actively enrolled in pre-kindergarten through grade 12 in public schools, including charter schools, according to state Department of Education records. In comparison, the K-12 head count in private schools statewide totaled 33,492 during the 2020-21 school year, those records show.

Student enrollment among members of the South Carolina Association of Christian Schools and Independent School Association currently totals about 11,500 and 36,000, respectively, according to Earwood and Jordan.

Jordan said the average annual tuition among the 134 schools in his organization is about $8,000. Earwood said yearly tuition among the approximately 75 schools in his group varies greatly, with costs, as an example, running between $4,000 and $5,000 at some rural schools, and $8,000 to $10,000 at other schools in more populated areas.

“We’re not going to get rich off of it,” Earwood said about the compromise scholarship bill, noting the $5,000 cap wouldn’t cover tuition costs above that amount, and that a number of churches in his organization already subsidize tuition at their respective schools.

Earwood also pointed out that the $5,000 cap is lower than the average amount of tax dollars provided annually for public school students. State Department of Education records show that for this school year, estimated state revenues, excluding bond revenues, for students in regular public school districts averaged $6,937 per student, with a total estimated average of $15,535 per student including federal and local funds.

Jordan said while his organization supports the compromise bill’s main goal of offering school choice at the K-12 levels, many of his member schools question whether the legislation allows enough flexibility in the types of standardized assessment tests given to students.

“With many of the schools, the concern is whether you would truly have autonomy to elect your curriculum,” he said. “As the South Carolina Independent School Association, of course we are in favor of school choice, but also with keeping our autonomy as independent schools.”

‘Missing link’

Sen. Hembree said although there was a Senate floor amendment requiring private school students to take standardized state assessment tests – which he noted he opposed – the compromise bill would allow those students to take “nationally normed” assessment tests that would be comparable to the state exams.

Hembree also said that as part of the six-member, conference committee’s negotiations, House members agreed to a Senate proposal to make the scholarships a permanent program.

“It was quite a trick to meld these two really different bills together to get where we wanted to get, and we were able to do that,” he said, describing the compromise legislation as “pro-student, pro-education, pro-family and pro-parent.”

Rep. Erickson, one of the three House conference committee members, said school choice already exists at the 4-year-old kindergarten and higher education levels in the state, adding that parents are “asking for the same options for those 12 years in the middle” as it relates to private schools at those grade levels.

“That’s kind of the missing link,” she said.

Asked about the Senate’s chances of passing the compromise bill when the Legislature reconvenes Tuesday, Erickson replied: “I’m not interfering; the ball’s in their court. I certainly hope and pray they will give it a look.”

Brundrett is the news editor of The Nerve (www.thenerve.org). Contact him at 803-3948273 or rick@thenerve.org. Follow him on Twitter @RickBrundrett. Follow The Nerve on Facebook and Twitter @thenervesc.

Nerve stories are free to reprint and repost with permission by and credit to The Nerve.

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