By RICK BRUNDRETT
The S.C. Senate on Tuesday gave key approval to a bill that would provide $6,000 scholarships to low- and middle-income students to attend private or other public schools.
The bill, sponsored by Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Berkeley, was passed after a lengthy floor debate that began on Jan. 18. Another compromise school-choice bill, which focused on low-income students, died in the 46-member Senate at the end of the last regular legislative session in June.
The Senate on Tuesday voted 28-15, mainly along party lines, to approve second reading of the bill, which Grooms initially filed in November and later was amended multiple times in committee and on the floor. The bill will go to the 124-member House for its consideration after the Senate gives it an expected routine third reading scheduled for today.
Under a successful amendment proposed Tuesday by Sen. Greg Hembree, R-Horry, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, scholarships would be offered in school years 2024-25, 2025-26, and 2026-27 and all subsequent years to students in families with household incomes of up to 200%, 300% and 400%, respectively, of federal poverty guidelines.
For example, the current federal poverty guideline for a family of four is $30,000. Based on that figure, a family of four could be eligible for the scholarship program with a household income of up to $60,000, $90,000 and $120,000, respectively, in the first three years of the program.
Contacted Monday by The Nerve before the full Legislature convened, Hembree said he expected the bill to pass the Senate this week, noting, though, the final version could be amended further, including proposals to expand the program to middle-class families.
Hembree said it’s “tough to predict” the bill’s chances in the House, adding, “I’m hoping they can land somewhere close to where we are.”
“We will work through their bill and flesh out what our House members see as supportive of our state’s children and families, and that offers as many educational opportunities as possible,” Rep. Shannon Erickson, R-Beaufort, who chairs the House Education and Public Works Committee, said in a written response Monday to The Nerve.
In a statewide poll released last week by the South Carolina Policy Council – The Nerve’s parent organization – 60% of 637 likely S.C. voters said they strongly or somewhat approved of a scholarship program for low-income, K-12 students to attend private schools. The Policy Council found similar support for the program in a June poll.
In the latest random survey, the percentage of respondents who strongly supported the scholarship proposal was 32% – nearly double the rate of those who strongly disapproved. The margin of error in the poll, conducted Jan. 17-19 by Tennessee-based Spry Strategies, was 3.9 plus or minus percentage points.
“Passing educational choice options for parents is widely popular in South Carolina among all ages, races, genders and political persuasions,” said Dallas Woodhouse, the Policy Council’s executive director, in a prepared statement issued with the poll results. “We know of no other legislation the General Assembly could possibly pass that would be as unifying as this critical legislation, which bridges every political divide known to man.”
Expanding school choice is one of the Policy Council’s top priorities for this legislative session.
Besides school choice, the Policy Council’s latest poll also solicited voters’ opinions in a variety of other areas, including taxes, inflation, government transparency and abortion. The full survey results can be found here.
Contacted Tuesday by The Nerve, Spencer Jordan, executive director of the South Carolina Independent School Association (SCISA), said the latest school-choice bill is a “great first step, and secondarily to all of this, I think it speaks volumes for the direction of the state in providing school choice among the constituents and youth of our state.”
“I’m not against the concept of education savings accounts, which is what they’re (lawmakers) proposing,” Edward Earwood, executive director of the South Carolina Association of Christian Schools (SCACS), told The Nerve. “Basically, their concept is the money follows the kids, and I don’t see a problem with that.”
Scholarships to benefit thousands
The latest version of the Senate bill would provide $6,000 scholarships per student to a maximum 5,000 eligible students in the 2024-25 school year, with the number of recipients growing to a maximum 10,000 in 2025-26, and a maximum 15,000 in 2026-27 and following school years.
The total cost of the program would range from $30 million in the first year to up to nearly $98.6 million in the third year, based on annual adjustments to per-pupil state allocations, according to a recent fiscal impact statement from the S.C. Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Office.
Gov. Henry McMaster’s proposed state budget for next fiscal year, which starts July 1, would provide $25 million in lottery funds toward the creation of education scholarship accounts to “allow low-income parents to choose the type of education environment and instruction that best suits their child’s unique needs.”
As of last November, there were a total of 789,232 students actively enrolled in pre-kindergarten through grade 12 in S.C. public schools, including charter schools, according to the S.C. Department of Education’s 45-day headcount.
Earwood said there currently are a little more than 12,000 students attending 75 SCACS schools, while Jordan noted the SCISA student population totals about 35,000 in 134 schools, though he estimated the overall independent-school population in South Carolina at 50,000 to 60,000 students.
Under the amended Senate bill, public funds would be deposited in individual, online “Education Scholarship Trust Fund” (ESTF) accounts and allocated to parents of eligible students to pay for qualifying expenses, including tuition and fees, textbooks, computers, tutoring and transportation costs capped at $750 per school year, at approved public or private schools. The Department of Education would administer the program.
Parents, for example, could use the scholarships to send their children to other public schools outside their home districts, assuming there was available space at the out-of-district schools, Hembree said.
“Quite honestly,” he added, “I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw as many students use the scholarship for that purpose as you might see students transferring to a private school.”
Jordan said tuition in his organization averages about $7,000. Earwood said tuition in his group averages about $5,000 at rural schools and approximately $8,000 to $10,000 at schools in more populated areas.
In comparison, the estimated per-pupil state revenue for this school year, excluding bond revenue and charter schools, averages $7,777; including federal and local property tax revenues, the total estimated per-pupil revenue averages $16,702, Department of Education records show.
‘Dramatically different model’
The amended Senate bill generally would require ESTF recipients to take state standardized or, as an alternative, “nationally norm referenced formative assessment” tests in grades three through eight; and for grades nine through 12, “nationally norm referenced or formative assessment” tests, all of which would be approved by the Department of Education. The type of standardized test required of students attending private schools was a key point of contention in last year’s legislative debate.
“That’s a major component of (private) schools being willing to accept these types of funds moving forward, simply because there’s a perception out there that there’s going to be too much government overreach,” said Jordan.
Eligible schools under the current bill could not discriminate based on race, color or national origin, though independent or religious schools would not be banned from “exercising an exemption allowed under federal law.” Receipts for all allowable expenses would have to be provided to parents to ensure that funds are spent properly.
The legislation also would require the state Education Oversight Committee to publish graduation rates and “associated learning gains” of private schools in the program, based on certain levels of participation, while complying with all student privacy laws. In addition, a new, 10-member “ESTF Review Panel,” chaired by the governor or his designee, could make recommendations to the Legislature and Department of Education.
Any enacted school-choice bill likely will face a legal challenge, said Hembree, the former top prosecutor for Horry and Georgetown counties, when interviewed Monday, though he added the bill was drafted in a way to “make it constitutionally sound.”
In 2020, the S.C. Supreme Court unanimously ruled that McMaster’s plan to use $32 million in federal COVID-relief funds for private-school tuition grants was unconstitutional.
“I’m not challenging the (2020) opinion, but this is a dramatically different model,” Hembree said about the latest Senate bill. “What you have is an appropriation held in trust, and the trustee is essentially the parent. The (education) department is like a bank that holds the money.”
In a related matter, under a recently filed joint resolution, the main sponsor of which is House Speaker Murrell Smith, R-Sumter, voters statewide would be asked whether to repeal the section of the S.C. Constitution that bans public funding for the “direct benefit” of any religious or other private educational institution.
Brundrett is the news editor of The Nerve (www.thenerve.org). Contact him at 803-394-8273 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @RickBrundrett. Follow The Nerve on Facebook and Twitter @thenervesc.
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