COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - The South Carolina Supreme Court heard arguments Friday for and against using $32 million in COVID-19 relief money for private school scholarships.
Gov. Henry McMaster wants to give most of his GEER fund, which stands for Governor’s Education Emergency Relief fund, to the grant program that provides one-time scholarships to middle- and low-income students wanting to attend private schools.
He says it’s important to school choice.
McMaster calls the program Safe Access to Flexible Education Grants, also known as SAFE grants. It would give about 5,000 students money to pay for private school tuition.
The Orangeburg County School District, SCEA, and several others filed suit to stop it. They believe giving public money to private education is unconstitutional.
Those in support of the governor have argued the money is not public funds.
- Gov. McMaster opts to use most of his education relief funds to help families pay for private school tuition
- SAFE grants receive mixed reaction from parents, teachers, administrators
- Education advocacy groups, state lawmakers oppose use of GEER funds for private school scholarships
- Fight over private school grants could be heading to the SC Supreme Court
However, for some families, they said the SAFE grants would be a lifeline that can’t come soon enough.
“Northside is our family. It’s the only school my kids have ever known,” Elizabeth Reilly, a Northside Christian parent, said tearfully.
Reilly lost her husband and her two kids lost their dad to cancer in May.
“If it weren’t for our family at Northside at the school and church, our kids would not have gotten through the last year and a half,” Reilly said.
Reilly said her husband always wanted their kids to attend a Christian school.
“He said he would work five jobs if he had to, but he was going to make sure they got that education,” Reilly said.
Reilly said due to the loss of income, COVID-19, and the loss of a scholarship from Exceptional SC for her two children, she could only afford to send one of her kids back to Northside this year. However, she said the SAFE grants sounded like the solution.
“I looked at my kids and said, ‘We might not have to worry anymore because this is like an answered prayer,’” Reilly said.
Attorneys for the defendants, which include Governor McMaster and the Palmetto Promise Institute, argued that the families are the direct beneficiaries of the grants, not the schools; therefore, the grants should be allowed. Attorneys representing the plaintiffs, which include Orangeburg County resident Dr. Thomasena Adams and SC Education Association, argued that the grants violate the South Carolina constitution because it’s allocating public funds to private education institutions and the GEER funds are public.
“We presented to the court that these are public funds because the governor is taking the funds and harnessing them for his purposes and the governor is the executive of the public in this state,” Skyler Hutto, the attorney for the plaintiffs, said.
Many parents and teachers in the public school system have expressed frustration with the SAFE grants over the last few months.
“We firmly believe that public dollars should flow to public education, to schools that are fully accountable and fully accessible to all S.C. students,” Patrick Kelly, the Palmetto State Teachers Association Director of Governmental Affairs, said in July 2020.
Many parents and teachers have said the public schools need the money to safely reopen and more students would benefit from the funds going to public schools.