The South Carolina Senate passed a bill Wednesday that would allow middle-class families to use public funds to enroll in private, religious schools or public schools outside of their district.
Lawmakers tweaked last session’s failed “education savings account” bill, which only allowed Medicaid-eligible children or children with disabilities to participate in the program, and expanded eligibility to allow families with annual incomes over $100,000 to participate in the program.
To recap:‘Not what our state needs’: Educators on proposals to use public money for private schools
This year’s bill also added standardized testing requirements that would now exclude some children with disabilities, which is a stark departure from the fulcrum of most school choice debates in the state.
In the past few decades, school choice provisions have centered around finding the best practices for children with disabilities and economically disadvantaged children. Lawmakers have argued that a traditional public school setup does not have the tools to support children with needs that require extra attention. But this year, lawmakers removed disability provisions over three weeks of debate.
The Republican-led supporters said this legislation will still allow low-income parents to choose the best options for their children and improve learning. Major opponents of the bill said the legislation violated the state constitution, which bars direct funding for private religious schools.
Mon. Greg Hembree, R-Horry, the lead sponsor, said a 2022 US Supreme Court ruling allows public funds to be used in religious schools and the opinion gives “some comfort that such an idea is constitutionally sound”.
Democrat naysayers were also concerned that the bill lacked accountability provisions that would protect vulnerable students.
The majority of the lawmakers rejected non-discrimination clauses that would have barred private schools from denying students on the basis of their disability. Other opponents raised that the bill does not include protections against LGBTQ students from being rejected by private schools.
“The whole fundamental question (of the bill) is to expand the opportunity to put public money into private schools, man, so let’s not call it a choice, because it’s really not a parental choice in my opinion,” Sen. Ronnie Saab, D-Williamsburg, said.
Dig Deeper:School choice remains popular following COVID closures. What it means for students and schools.
“The choice rests with the school district and whether or not they’re going to participate,” he continued. “The choice rests with the school and whether or not they’re going to allow these kids to come in. There are no solid guidelines, in my humble opinion, that deals with the issue as to who’s accepted.”
Similar debates are working their way through statehouses across America. Republican party leadership nationwide is pushing for “school choice” policies in the wake of the pandemic school closures and the ongoing culture wars playing out during school board meetings.
Inspired by legislation in Arizona and Florida, the South Carolina bill allocates $6,000 to each student and will cost the state $30 million in its first year.
By the time the program reaches its maturity in 2026, the state will have to allocate just under $100 million per year. Students can use the money for textbooks, tuition, tutoring services, and education services to aid learning disabilities.
The first year of the program would be capped to Medicaid-eligible children who came from households whose annual income is 200% the federal poverty level, the bill says. This would include a family of four whose annual income is $60,000 per year.
But by 2026, the legislation would expand eligibility to families whose annual income is 400% the federal poverty level and is over $100,000.
The bill was passed 25-15 and was sent to the House.
Devyani Chhetri covers the South Carolina State House and is a watchdog SC government reporter. You can reach her at [email protected] or @ChhetriDevyani.
This article originally appeared on Greenville News: SC Senate allows use of public money in private schools