Republicans renew push to establish school voucher program in SC

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Published: Jan. 12, 2023 at 7:23 PM EST
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - Republican lawmakers in South Carolina listed that among their education priorities at the State House, this year is to finally establish a school voucher program.

That push was renewed Thursday after a panel advanced the bill to do this to the Senate floor, where senators could debate it as early as next week.

If passed, the program would give families state dollars to pay for their children to attend private schools.

“It’s about expanding that choice, particularly for students that could otherwise not afford it,” Sen. Greg Hembree, R – Horry, and chair of the Senate Education Committee, said.

This bill, as it is written now, would establish “Education Scholarship Accounts” to give thousands of students $6,000 each year, gradually ramping up to 15,000 students receiving a scholarship annually.

At full implementation under that structure, the program could cost the state up to $90 million each year. Supporters have said that money would not come out of the K-12 budget, instead coming from a separate pool of money, but public education advocates believe those dollars would still help those schools if it went to them instead.

To qualify, students would need to be Medicaid-eligible or have an IEP.

Families could use this money to pay for private-school tuition, books and supplies, and transportation to and from school, among other approved uses.

“You’re giving them a choice and an opportunity to try something if they’re not getting what they need or their family doesn’t think they’re getting what they need at their local school, it gives them the opportunity to try something different,” Hembree said.

This bill passed in both the House and the Senate last year but in different forms, with the chambers approving different details like caps on enrollment and eligibility requirements.

It fell short of becoming law in the closing hours of the legislative session over a disagreement about whether students receiving this money would be required to take the same statewide test public school students do, as an accountability measure to see if this state-funded program is working.

With a new, two-year legislative session beginning this week, any bill that did not become law last year needs to start the legislative process from scratch, including this one.

“There’s going to be some amendments on the floor regarding testing, maybe eligibility,” Senate Minority Leader Brad Hutto, D – Orangeburg, said. “But I expect that overall, this bill is going to pass. It passed last year. It’s probably going to pass again this year.”

Hutto said even with accountability measures in place, he still doesn’t like this bill, which has drawn wide Democratic opposition in previous years.

“We need to focus on the number of children in classrooms, teacher pay increases, recruiting new people to go into education as a field. There are so many other things we could do that would so positively affect education,” Hutto said.

The Senate Education Committee faced criticism for not taking any public testimony on this bill this year before advancing it Thursday, which lawmakers usually do.

But senators defended that, saying they have been vetting this bill for years and took several hours of testimony on it as recently as last year.

“It’s been worked to death, and quite frankly at a point, we’re wasting taxpayer money, and every minute we spend on it, we don’t want to waste that time, that taxpayer time, that we have put into this project,” Hembree said.

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