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Education Savings Account: SC bill would establish school voucher-like program

Classroom generic (Credit: Tonya Brown/WPDE)
Classroom generic (Credit: Tonya Brown/WPDE)
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Thursday, the debate shifted back to lawmakers in Columbia over whether or not the public education system in South Carolina needs to be shaken up.

Lawmakers in the Senate Education Subcommittee were unable to progress the proposed bill following time constraints. Lawmakers had to move back to the Senate Thursday to continue debate on the medical marijuana bill. Nonetheless, the discussion is still hot in South Carolina over Education Savings or Scholarship Accounts.

There's also some confusion about the specific bill that ABC15 wanted to get cleared up. First, who is eligible for an Education Savings Account, which is similar to a school voucher programs in other states.

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An eligible student would be one who is residing in any school district of this state that has attained the age of five on or before September first of the school year and;

  • Has an annual adjusted gross family income of 200% or less of the federal poverty guidelines as promulgated annually by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services or a statement of Medicaid eligibility
  • That participated in the S.C. Early Reading Development and Education Program
  • That previously received an ESA scholarship issued pursuant to this legislation
  • Received an Educational Credit for Exceptional Needs Children (ECENC) scholarship.

According to the bill, a 'resident school district' refers to the public school district where the child is geographically domiciled. Based on the federal data provided, a family of four making less than $54,000 would be considered eligible.

Some opponents believe that a child who was already in a private school setting may be able to tap into the funds, other experts say that could only happen if the child were to reenroll into a public school system.

That's just the beginning. Proponents of the idea say it will help some of the most vulnerable students in the state.

"For that student and that family that it really works for, that's a huge deal. It's sort of a life changing option for that student," said Sen. Greg Hembree (R-Horry) who also chairs the committee in which the bill will need to pass through before reaching the full Senate.

The idea behind the account is this; when a student is enrolled in a public school there are three sources of funding that are given the the district the help facilitate that child. There's local, state, and federal per pupil funding. The bill would allow for a student to leave a public school, take the state funding options with them, and seek another avenue whether that be private or something else. That state money for would stay and continue to be sent to the student until they graduated. However, the money would only be available for school related expenses.

You'll hear, 'well this is taking students away from the system, from the traditional system and somehow traditional system.' And that's just not been the case," said Sen. Hembree. "I think the states that's had them the longest, I think 5% of their students use this option. And you know 5% is not a significant blow to the system in any way.

However, over time, that percent shifts according to the bill and data from the Department of Revenue and Fiscal Affairs.

The bill would make it so the enrollment into ESAs would be capped for the first 4 years. Initially, only 5,000 would have access to them. Then that would increase by 5,000 each year, but after year 5, there would be no cap. The fiscal impact report estimates that would then open up the accounts for more than 300,000 students. That's a three fold increase from current eligible student estimates. The report believes if every student took advantage of that option, it could lead to a $2.9 billion loss for public schools.

"That's extreme, I don't think we'll ever get to that size," said Palmetto State Teacher's Association Governmental Affairs Director Patrick Kelly. "But even if we don't get to 2.9 billion if you start talking hundreds of millions of dollars there will be choices and programs lost within public schools."

Kelly and the PSTA are against the bill like the School Boars Association, SC for Ed, and the SC Educators Association. However, Kelly says the association isn't waging a battle against school choice.

Too often school choice gets framed with 'you're in favor of school choice' which means you want to privatize public education or you're opposed to school choice which means you want every student to go to the school where they are geographically zoned for. Neither of those are true," Kelly said.

Kelly said with Senate Bill 935, the issue arises with the criteria and the inability to hold private schools accountable for who they allow and how they teach students.

"The minute that you take public dollars funded by all taxpayers then I believe that your school accessible and open to students of all taxpayers," Kelly said. "As the bill is written, it will allow a school to deny admission to a child on any criteria other than race, national origin, and color."

Kelly says as a parent, that's not choice. However, the school would not see a penny of the family's ESA if they denied a student entry.

There's also the matter of accountability. Private schools have a first amendment protected right to teach how they want to teach, and that can exclude what are called Individual Education Plan standards. Sen. Shane Massey (R-Edgefield) said on Thursday that private schools would have to decide if they could accommodate a child's IEP.

On the other side, the private school community has shown support for the legislation.

“The diocese, and our 33 member schools, continue to be supportive of education reform that places parents in the driver's seat of their child’s education," said Maria Aselage with the Charleston branch of the Roman Catholic Diocese. " Every child deserves an equal opportunity to shine, learn and grow. We call on our elected leaders to pass this needed legislation so that low-income parents can give their children the best education possible.”

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ABC15 asked Sen. Hembree about the failed attempt by Governor McMaster to create a similar funding mechanism in the SAFE Grants. Hembree did not go into the case, nor the difference between the ESA and the SAFE Grant. He simply mentioned how the pandemic has changed parent's views on education options for their children. He says that opened the eyes for many families to look at options outside of public education.

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We will continue to follow S. 935 as it progresses in the SC Senate.

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