Senate panel advances private school choice bill

Associated Press

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - A bill giving tax breaks to parents who send their children to private school or educate them at home advanced Wednesday in the Senate, despite a panel's 3-2 vote against it.

A Senate subcommittee sent the measure to full Senate Finance with no recommendation. Chairman Wes Hayes said the bill deserves more discussion, though he's "still wrestling" philosophically with the idea of using public money to subsidize private and home schools.

"I didn't want it to die in subcommittee," said Hayes, R-Rock Hill.

Sen. Larry Grooms, an adamant supporter, said the bill gives parents more options.

"It's a wonderful opportunity to help families in South Carolina give their children the kind of education they want them to have," said Grooms, R-Bonneau.

Supporters of the idea scored their first win on the House floor in March, when the chamber voted 65-49 on what supporters called a home-grown version of a long-divisive issue fueled by out-of-state money. Similar bills have died repeatedly since 2004.

Opponents say such programs undermine public schools by keeping tax revenues out of state coffers, a major funding source for public education, while subsidizing schools that are not subject to state and federal accountability laws and don't have to accept all students.

The Senate panel's move mimics what Hayes' education subcommittee did with last year's version, before the full Education Committee swiftly killed it without debate.

Sponsoring Rep. Eric Bedingfield, R-Mauldin, told senators this year's version is comparatively modest in cost. He called it the best way for South Carolina to begin a school choice movement.

State budget advisors estimate the bill would reduce revenue in 2012-13 by $36.7 million. Hayes said he's concerned about the increasing impact to the budget, noting the tax deductions are unlimited. Budget advisors estimate that parents will claim deductions on 63,046 children in 2012-13.

The bill gives a $4,000 tax deduction per child for parents who pay tuition up front and a $2,000 deduction for homeschooling expenses. Poor and disabled children could get scholarships for up to 75 percent of tuition cost, capped at $10,000 for students with disabilities and $5,000 for poor students.

Opponents questioned how those scholarships would be awarded. Bedingfield said he believes it would be on a first-come, first-serve basis.

Residents and businesses who donate to the nonprofits doling out the scholarships could claim dollar-for-dollar tax credits on their state income taxes - capped at $25 million in credits statewide next fiscal year. The limits would increase yearly based on inflation and population growth.

"We're opening things up and saying to the parent who decides on a private education, we're going to give you a little tax break, and it's about time it came," said Sen. David Thomas, R-Greenville.

Bedingfield said the proposal is modeled most closely after Florida's, though two dozen states have similar programs.

The vote comes two weeks after former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush headlined an education forum in Columbia organized by U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint, in which Bush touted his state's educational options. However, Florida's program is limited to the scholarships for poor and disabled students, not tax breaks for all parents with children in private and home schools.

Sen. Phil Leventis, D-Sumter, questioned incentivizing parents to homeschool their children in a state with one of the nation's most lenient homeschooling laws. School officials have said that children who were supposedly homeschooled are enrolling in elementary school grades behind.

"How do we know homeschoolers are making the progress they need to be making?" Leventis asked.

Parent Kathy Lord described educating her children at home as a calling - a sacrifice - noting her daughter took standardized tests yearly and is going to Presbyterian College this fall. She said there are children grades behind in public schools, too.

"Do all homeschoolers do it like I do? No, and I have personally told those mothers, 'Put those kids in school,'" said Lord, a former high school math teacher. "We live in a fallen world. It's not a perfect system. ... It's not public money. It's my money. I only want a small portion back."

Scott Price with the state School Boards Association asked how the Legislature could reduce funding when the budget already falls short of state law in funding public schools and local governments. The state is spending $1,880 per student this year through a key funding source that primarily pays teacher salaries, due to recession-era budget cuts, though the state formula calls for it to be $2,790 this year.

It would cost $553 million to restore the so-called base student cost to $2,790, according to the state budget office.

The House budget plan for 2012-13 distributes an additional $153 million through the formula, increasing the per-student allocation to $2,012.

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