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School voucher-like program moving closer to establishment in SC

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Published: May. 11, 2022 at 8:18 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - A program that would give some South Carolina families public dollars to send their children to private schools is getting close to becoming a reality.

The state’s House of Representatives passed a bill to establish “Education Scholarship Accounts,” S.935, on Wednesday. The Senate had already passed the legislation earlier in the year.

“Right now, I think the parents have asked for an option, and they deserve for us to let them see if it works,” Rep. Shannon Erickson, R – Beaufort, said.

The bill would provide for 5,000 students a year to receive $5,000 for an Education Scholarship Account.

To qualify, families would need to have a low enough income to be eligible for Medicaid or the Children’s Health Insurance Program, be active-duty military, or have been enrolled in the state’s 4K pre-kindergarten program the year before.

They would be able to use the money on tuition for private schools and public schools out of their home district, along with fees, books, and transportation.

Some opponents contended the bill would not provide the benefits to South Carolina’s lower-income families that supporters believe it would.

“How can you administer this program knowing that you’ve got tuition ranges — the average being $2,200 above the maximum — and we’re talking about doing this for Medicaid kids?” Rep. Roger Kirby, D – Florence, asked during floor debate.

The legislation would establish a three-year pilot program for the Education Scholarship Accounts, with $25 million taken out of state reserves each year to pay for it.

“We’re not taking any dollars from any public education system. It’s coming from our Contingency Reserve Fund,” Erickson said. “There’s no dollars from any public program going into this pilot program.”

Democrats argued the $75 million total over the three-year period would be better invested in public education in the first place.

“Defunding them doesn’t seem like the right approach,” Rep. Spencer Wetmore, D – Charleston, said. “If we have somebody who’s unhappy with the public bus system, we don’t give them a voucher to take an Uber.”

While supporters of the bill said it would give families an education option, they would not be able to otherwise afford, opponents answered that they believe it will be to the detriment of public schools.

Rep. Russell Ott, D – Calhoun, characterized the bill as “the start of the slippery slope of the demise of public education in South Carolina.”

“There’s so many different things that we can do right here in this body to improve public education,” Ott said. “But this isn’t helping public education.”

Ott proposed a dozen amendments to the bill, aimed at promoting transparency and accountability in the program, but all of them were voted down and not included in the bill’s final version.

The legislation was passed in a 66-38 vote largely along party lines, with some Republicans breaking from the majority to join Democrats in voting against it.

In passing this bill, House members made numerous changes to it from what the Senate had previously approved in March.

Senators next can either agree to those changes and send them along to the governor, or — more likely — they can opt against concurring with the House amendments, leaving the two chambers to negotiate a compromise.

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