SC education advocate groups file lawsuit challenging private school voucher program

Several groups sue over private school voucher program
Several groups sue over private school voucher program(Pexels)
Published: Oct. 26, 2023 at 3:51 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - Parents of students, civil rights groups, and education organizations have jointly filed a lawsuit asking the South Carolina Supreme Court to strike down the private school voucher program.

Six parents of students, the South Carolina State Conference of the NAACP, and the South Carolina Education Association filed the lawsuit claiming Senate Bill 39 drains the state’s limited resources that should be used for the 90% of students who attend public schools.

The lawsuit also alleges Senate Bill 39 violates crucial protections in the state constitution including a prohibition against directing public funds to private schools.

The lawsuit claims that Senate Bill 39, which was passed earlier this year by the South Carolina Legislature, directs millions of state tax revenue to pay for tuition at private schools.

Private schools that take public dollars under the program are not subject to the same academic, health, and safety requirements as public schools, and are permitted to discriminate against students based on factors such as disability, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, and past academic performance said the plaintiffs’ representation.

“Our public schools already lack sufficient resources, so it makes no sense to use school vouchers to divide our limited state funds between public schools and unaccountable private schools,” said plaintiff Candace Eidson, parent of a student in Greenville County Public Schools.

“Unlike public schools, which serve all students, the private schools that receive voucher funds are allowed to choose which students they will serve and can engage in discrimination that would never be allowed in public schools. As a mother of a child who has autism, I fear my child and others like her will be negatively impacted by this program.”

Sherry East, a Rock Hill science teacher said the following about the lawsuit:

“Our constitution reflects a binding commitment that the resources of our state should be used to fully fund our public schools, which serve all students. Instead of private school vouchers, we should invest in our public schools by reducing class size, addressing the teacher shortage crisis, and increasing parental involvement. S.39 is a clear violation of our state constitution. It cannot go unchallenged.”

“It is unacceptable to send public dollars to schools that discriminate against children and families,” said Brenda Murphy, President of the South Carolina State Conference of the NAACP. “In addition to violating our state constitution, we know that vouchers exacerbate school segregation, harm educational outcomes, and undermine our public schools.”

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit, Eidson v. South Carolina Department of Education, contend that the voucher program violates numerous provisions of the South Carolina Constitution:

· First, Article XI, § 4 of the South Carolina Constitution prohibits the use of public funds for the direct benefit of private schools. In violation of this clear limit, S.39 requires the South Carolina Department of Education to transfer public funds to private schools for their direct benefit.

· Second, by paying for the education of certain South Carolina students in private schools that are not free of charge nor open to all, the voucher program violates the requirement in Article XI, § 3 of the constitution that the State provide for the education of its children through a “system of free public schools open to all children” or other public educational institutions.

· Third, the voucher program violates Article X of the South Carolina Constitution because it uses public funds without a sufficient public purpose, as the private schools funded by the program are not required to provide clear educational benefits in exchange for receiving public funds and may discriminate in their operations.

· Fourth, S.39 charges the state Superintendent of Education with administering and overseeing the voucher program, impermissibly expanding the authority of the office of the Superintendent beyond its sole, constitutionally defined role as head of the public education system.

The plaintiffs are represented by lawyers from the National Education Association, Education Law Center.

In 2020, Governor Henry McMaster’s attempt to use federal COVID aid to fund a private school voucher program was struck down by the State Supreme Court because it violated the constitutional prohibition on the use of public funds to benefit private schools.

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