Debate on school voucher-like program will extend to next week in SC Senate

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Published: Mar. 24, 2022 at 8:35 PM EDT|Updated: Mar. 24, 2022 at 9:21 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - A proposal to give South Carolina families state dollars to send their children to private schools is up for debate at the State House.

The bill, S.935, would create Education Scholarship Accounts, which would be similar to school voucher programs offered in other states.

Under the proposal, families would receive $6,000 a year per student with an ESA, and that dollar figure would be adjusted yearly based on the amount public schools receive per pupil each year in the state budget.

Supporters argued this is state money put to good use to provide access to a better education for more of South Carolina’s children.

“It focuses on children who do not have the educational opportunities that so many other children have,” Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey of Edgefield said on the Senate floor during the first day of debate Wednesday. “This bill is targeted to poor kids and kids with special education needs. That’s the limit.”

Students who are Medicaid eligible because their family’s income is low enough or have an IEP would qualify for an ESA, as would students whose siblings also have one of these accounts.

The program would be phased in and eventually capped at a 15,000-student maximum.

“Some of the boogeyman stuff you’re going to hear is that all the children are going to flee the public school system, and it’s going to bankrupt them,” Massey said. “Well, one, we’re not taking the money from them, but secondly, if you look at what’s going on around other parts of the country, that’s just not at all the case.”

Families would be able to use the money on private school tuition, along with other allowable expenses, including books, fees, and transportation. If students opt through an open enrollment program to attend a public school outside the district where they live, some of which may charge non-resident tuition, they could also use their money for that fee.

Sen. Mike Fanning, D – Fairfield, who stood at the lectern for all of Thursday’s second day of debate, argued this bill would provide “the illusion of choice, without real choice.”

“If the tuition’s $20,000, and the Medicaid-eligible poor kid gets a $6,000 voucher, the only way they can go — now, unless there’s some goodwill, and people are throwing money around — the only way they can go is if the family can make up the difference,” he said.

An earlier version of the bill drew its funding from the money allocated to public schools in the state budget, which had been a non-starter for teacher advocacy groups. However, that funding source was changed in the amended form of the bill on the Senate floor.

“This will be money that the General Assembly appropriates every year on a recurring line, so the school districts are not going to lose any money,” Massey said.

But other senators still contended the $90 million total that could be distributed at maximum participation would be better spent on public schools themselves.

“They could reduce class sizes — that was spoken of before. They could offer more opportunities for the students that they currently have, add to the program offering that they do,” Fanning said.

Senators have not yet taken a vote on the bill, and some members will likely propose amendments to it when they continue their debate next Tuesday afternoon.

A similar Education Scholarship Account bill is in committee in the House of Representatives.

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