October 1, 2022

The Nerve

Where Government Gets Exposed

Scott pushes unspent covid funds for school choice options

By RICK BRUNDRETT

More than a year after the federal government’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus-relief plan became law, South Carolina’s public school districts have spent relatively little of their share of the money, state records show.

U.S. Sen. Tim Scott believes lower-income parents nationwide should be able to use the unspent federal education dollars to help their children recover from learning losses resulting from the pandemic. That would include covering tuition at private schools under his bill introduced last week.

“States and school districts have only spent a fraction of the education funds they received through the Democrats’ American Rescue Plan – leaving kids helpless as they struggle to recover from academic setbacks,” the South Carolina Republican said in a prepared statement. “It’s clear that big-government bailouts won’t solve our education crisis.”

Of the total nearly $1.9 billion in federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds allocated to S.C. public school districts, including charter schools, under the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), about $117.4 million, or 6.2%, has been spent, according to S.C. Department of Education (SCDOE) records.

Contacted this week by The Nerve, Edward Earwood, executive director of the South Carolina Association of Christian Schools, said his organization “certainly would embrace” Scott’s bill, which would amend the federal law signed by President Joe Biden in March 2021.

“I’m a firm believer that tax dollars paid should be able to be used to serve the taxpayer,” he said. “And if the taxpayers choose an alternative means to public education, I do not see a problem with that offer being made.”

S.C. Sen Greg Hembree, R-Horry, who is chairman of the Senate Education Committee and was a key negotiator on a compromise school-choice bill that didn’t pass this year, told The Nerve last week he hadn’t yet read Scott’s bill but would support it in principle.

“They (many school districts) have these fund balances that are just stunning, and then, of course, you throw ARPA on top of that,” he said. “The money needs to be used to get our kids caught up.”

Hembree said he expects the state school-choice bill to be reintroduced for next year’s legislative session, adding that Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Berkeley, who is an Education Committee member and also the Transportation Committee chairman, likely will be the bill’s main sponsor again.

“In December you’ll probably see something that looks kind of familiar,” Hembree said.

Next week is the start of the 2022-23 school year for most of the state’s public school districts.

As The Nerve reported in June, S.C. residents generally support using public money to allow children to attend private schools, according to the results of a poll released by the South Carolina Policy Council – The Nerve’s parent organization.

In addition to 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.

Complete results of the poll can be found here.

In a related matter, the U.S. Supreme Court in June in a Maine case said religious schools couldn’t be excluded from a state program that offers public tuition assistance for private education. Supporters contend the ruling will help protect religious schools nationwide against government discrimination.

As a group, South Carolina’s public schools have ranked among the nation’s worst in recent years. For example, a study released last month by WalletHub, a personal finance website, ranked The Palmetto State’s public schools as the sixth worst among all states and the District of Columbia.

At the end of last school year, there were 777,292 S.C. actively enrolled students in pre-kindergarten through grade 12 in public schools, including charter schools, SCDOE records show.

In comparison, student enrollment among members of the South Carolina Association of Christian Schools and the South Carolina Independent School Association totals about 11,500 and 36,000, respectively, the organizations’ executive directors earlier told The Nerve.

Slow spending by school districts

The Nerve recently reviewed SCDOE records of ESSER funds allocated under ARPA to the state’s three-largest public school districts: Greenville County (77,070 actively enrolled students last school year), Charleston County (49,037 students) and Horry County (46,375 students).

Those records show that relatively small percentages of their ESSER allocations have been spent. Following is a breakdown of the total amount of allocated and expended funds, with the percentage of spent money in parentheses, according to the state records:

*Charleston: $163.2 million allocated, $0 spent (0%)

*Greenville: $162.9 million allocated, $35.4 million spent (21.7%)

*Horry: $125.2 million allocated, $12.3 million spent (9.8%)

Charleston County schools spokesman Andrew Pruitt told The Nerve in a written response this week that the state’s website “often lags a quarter behind the districts’ input,” noting his district to date has spent $20.6 million of the ESSER funding.

That amount represents 12.6% of the total allocation, leaving $142.6 million in unspent funds.

Pruitt said for this school year, the money will be used for “additional mental wellness support staff and programs, expanding early childhood education, teacher recruiting, expanding support for Acceleration Schools, new English Language Arts curriculum roll-out, implementing health protocols, and expanding multilingual learner support.”

In an email response to The Nerve, Greenville County schools spokeswoman Julie Horton said ESSER funds will be used for “continued academic recovery for students; social, emotional and mental health support and services; enhancing CTE (Career and Technical Education), health and safety support; education technology; and continuity of services within the district.” She also said the district plans to “spend down all the money.”

Records provided to The Nerve show that the district’s school board has yet to approve a total of $85.5 million in spending requests. (After this story was published, Horton informed The Nerve that the board approved the entire spending plan. She said the $85.5 million hasn’t been spent yet, though she noted the district has “through 2024” to do so.)

Horry County schools spokeswoman Lisa Bourcier said in a written response her district plans to “utilize these (ESSER) funds by the grant end date,” which is Sept. 30, 2024.

District records show that $22.2 million, or 17.7% of the total allocation, has been spent to date, including a collective $10 million for additional pay for “instruction of quarantined students,” 31 reading/math “learning loss interventionists,” and HVAC upgrades. Another $34.6 million in purchase orders was listed in the records, mostly for planned HVAC upgrades.

Those records also show an unspent amount totaling more than $68 million.

School choice legislation

U.S. Sen. Scott’s bill, titled the “Raising Expectations with Child Opportunity Vouchers for Educational Recovery (RECOVER) Act,” would allow school districts nationwide to direct unspent ESSER funds to parents for scholarships that could be used for private school tuition, tutoring services, books and other curriculum materials, testing fees and educational therapies for children with disabilities.

“Child Opportunity Scholarships” would be awarded to families with an annual household income no greater than 300% of the federal poverty level, under the bill.

U.S. Rep Burgess Owens, R-Utah, who is introducing companion legislation in the House, said in a prepared statement that “our one-size-fits-all system is leaving our most vulnerable kids behind and pushing parents out of the driver’s seat.”

“I am proud to introduce the RECOVER Act with Senator Scott to bring parents off the sidelines of their kids’ education by allowing states to reallocate billions in unspent dollars so that low-income students can receive the targeted support they need to reach their God-given potential,” Owens said.

In South Carolina, the state school-choice bill that didn’t pass this year would have provided maximum $5,000 scholarships in the first year of the program – using state surplus funds – to allow 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 approved private or public schools. The maximum number of annual scholarship students would eventually grow to 15,000 in subsequent years, under that bill.

“It’s going to be a relatively small group of kids who access these funds and make a good match,” state Sen. Hembree told The Nerve last week, noting the permanence of the proposed program was an “absolutely essential” part of the bill.

And what about the argument by opponents that tax dollars shouldn’t be spent on private education?

“The taxpayer who is sending their children to a private school is paying taxes and tuition,” said Earwood of the South Carolina Association of Christian Schools, who earlier noted that annual tuition for his member schools can range from about $4,000 to $10,000, depending on the location.

“Their (opponents) argument is that the public dollars shouldn’t support private education,” he continued. “But my argument would be it’s supporting pupil education; it just happens to be in a private sector.”

“I’m in favor of a method where parents can choose their child’s education,” Earwood said.

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.

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