Money for SAFE grants could remain frozen after Wednesday hearing

Money for SAFE grants could remain frozen after Wednesday hearing

ORANGEBURG, S.C. (WIS) - A hearing is set for Wednesday after a lawsuit was filed to stop Governor Henry McMaster from granting $32 million dollars to help families pay for private school tuition in South Carolina.

On Wednesday an Orangeburg Circuit Court judge will hold the hearing on the lawsuit filed against Governor Henry McMaster’s allocation of $32 million from his Emergency Education relief fund to SAFE grants. SAFE grants stand for Safe Access to Flexible Education grants. The grants are meant to help pay for private school tuition for low-income students, but the funds hang in limbo right now after the judge signed a temporary restraining order on the money last week.

Attorneys representing Dr. Thomasena Adams, who filed the lawsuit, said she has been working in the public education system in Orangeburg County for 15 years, and that she was shocked to learn that 32 million of Governor McMaster’s Education Emergency Relief funds allocated through the CARES Act, would be going towards the private education sector. Further, the lawsuit argues that the allocation violates South Carolina’s constitution.

“It just seems like a slap in the face to public education and educators who are going to be putting themselves back into harm’s way in a month or so when they go back into classrooms,” Syler Hutto, Adam’s attorney, said.

He said South Carolina’s constitution states that public funds can’t be given to religious or other private educational institutions and that the state has a supreme obligation to public education…

“By taking this $32 million, and siphoning it away from public education and putting it in the hands of private schools, they are really ignoring the constitution twice,” Hutto said.

The Palmetto State Teacher’s association agreed, filing an amicus curiae brief in support of the lawsuit yesterday. They said in a statement, “For over a decade,  advocates for voucher programs in South Carolina have failed to advance their goals in the General Assembly, and the Governor’s attempt to redirect federal relief funds to create vouchers is an unconstitutional action.”

Patrick Kelly, a Palmetto State Teachers Association Director of Governmental Affairs, said public dollars need to go directly to public schools.

“We firmly believe that public dollars should flow to public education; to schools that are fully accountable under our state system and fully accessible to all South Carolina students,” Kelly said.

Further, Kelley said the funds are more needed elsewhere.

“We also believe the governor’s use of GEER act funds is inappropriate in the midst of a pandemic when those funds could have been used to support our public school systems or universities that are looking at multi-million dollar shortfalls,” Kelly said.

Governor McMaster’s office responded to the lawsuit last week in a statement: “Working families in South Carolina are struggling to make ends meet during this pandemic and every parent should have the opportunity to choose the educational instruction that best suits their child’s needs. Federal coronavirus relief cannot, and should not, be denied to any citizen in need.” Brian Symmes, Communications Director for Governor Henry McMaster

The money allocated to SAFE grants by Governor McMaster would be used to provide about 5 thousand grants to students to cover things like tuition and transportation. Supporters said the money is critical for private schools to keep their doors open during a challenging time.

Hutto said that if the judge rules the allocation unconstitutional, the funds would go back to the Governor for him to allocate in a different way to education relief. The hearing will take place at the Orangeburg Court House on Wednesday at 2 p.m.

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