State bill would establish school voucher-like program in South Carolina
COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - On the second day of the 2022 legislative session, lawmakers took up a controversial education bill that would give families money from the state for their children to attend private schools.
A Senate education subcommittee heard public comment Wednesday on S. 935, which would establish Education Savings Accounts, also referred to as Education Scholarship Accounts, similar to school voucher programs in other states.
Testimony lasted for nearly two hours, with most of the morning’s speakers urging senators to stop the bill from advancing any further, saying it would be detrimental to South Carolina’s students and teachers, the majority of whom attend or work in public schools.
“If passed, this would further degrade a struggling system of public education, and as the system collapses, we will see young people suffer,” teacher Todd Scholl said.
Through Education Savings Accounts, the state would give families money each quarter to pay predominantly for nonpublic school tuition, with other eligible expenses as well, such as textbooks, tutoring services, and exam fees.
Families would receive an amount equal to the state average of how much public schools receive from the state per student.
“When funds are removed from the public sector and granted to private schools, the students enrolled in public schools will, in many instances, be denied quality academic programs,” retired teacher Marvin Byers said.
Under the bill, there would be income limits for determining family eligibility.
In the first year of the program’s existence, which would be the 2022-23 school year if lawmakers pass the bill this session, 5,000 students from kindergarten through third grade would be eligible to enroll. The number of students and eligible grades would expand for the next three school years, and in the fifth year, there would be no limit on the number of students in kindergarten through 12th grade who could enroll, as long as the General Assembly allocates money to support them.
A fiscal impact study from the South Carolina Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Office estimated at that point, with no limit on the number of students taking part in Education Savings Accounts, it would cost the state more than $2.9 billion.
“The actual reduction in local revenue will depend upon the number of students participating in the program and the district’s state funding. State funding per pupil in FY 2019-20 ranged from $5,089 to $11,940,” the report detailed.
Opponents argued the program would take critical funding away from public schools.
Among the groups opposed are the South Carolina School Boards Association and three teacher advocacy organizations, the Palmetto State Teachers Association, the South Carolina Education Association, and SCforEd.
“Education Scholarship Account vouchers are untested, unaccountable, and unaffordable. They’re dangerous for our public school system here,” Colleen O’Connell of the South Carolina Education Association said.
A smaller number of people spoke in favor of the bill Wednesday, arguing it would help more students and families by granting them more educational opportunities.
“It gives the parents the freedom to choose the best institution of learning for the child’s individual academic needs,” said Haymee Giuliani, the principal of St. Joseph Catholic School in Anderson.
“South Carolina would benefit by allowing the principles of the free market to elevate the level of education provided in our state,” supporter Patrick Conley added. “This legislation is good for our state.”
The bill also has major support at the State House, with Gov. Henry McMaster backing its passage.
In his executive budget, the governor asked lawmakers to set aside $20 million toward starting the Education Savings Account program, if legislators pass the bill into law this session.
“These accounts provide the opportunity for working or lower-income parents to choose the type of education environment and instruction that best suits their children’s unique needs,” McMaster said.
Senators did not vote on advancing the bill during their meeting Wednesday, with Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, R – Edgefield, saying they would try to schedule another subcommittee meeting next week to discuss the legislation before taking a vote.
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