South Carolina Students Set to Receive K-12 Vouchers, Only 3,000 Successful

South Carolina law allowed up to 5,000 K-12 students to receive $6,000 each for education expenses.

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COLUMBIA — The state will award taxpayer-funded scholarships to 2,880 K-12 students for 2024-25, meaning just under half of the available slots could go unused for the program’s inaugural year, according to data the state Department of Education provided Wednesday to the SC Daily Gazette.

The total of awarded scholarships means 64% of the 7,907 students whose parents applied by the March deadline were denied. Most of those applications were rejected because they either came in after the deadline or they weren’t completely filled out, according to the agency.

In the inaugural year, students had to qualify for Medicaid to be eligible. One of every 10 applications was rejected because the parents’ income was too high.

The law creating the private school choice program provided $6,000 scholarships for a maximum of 5,000 students for the coming year — to be awarded on a first-come, first-served basis to all eligible parents.

In March, GOP legislators in the House touted the high number of applicants as a reason to greatly expand the program before it even starts. But the final numbers suggest that was unnecessary. (The Senate never took up the bill.)

What’s in the budget?

Both the House and Senate set aside $30 million in their spending plans for the fiscal year starting July 1, assuming that all 5,000 slots would be taken. An agreement between the chambers’ budget plans won’t be worked out until next month. Regardless, that money is locked in, since it’s the same amount in both versions.

The 2,880 approved students will require less than 60% of that allocation.

By law, all awards had to be decided by mid-April, 30 days after the application deadline.

But denied parents can still correct errors or typos in their applications, which could result in a slight increase in approvals, according to the agency. However, the data it provided shows zero applications still in process.

Legislators may approve a clause in the budget overriding that deadline and allowing the state department to continue accepting applications and awarding eligible parents throughout the year.

Parents already notified can start accessing their $6,000 scholarships in July through an online portal that allows them to direct the money toward any of the hundreds of approved providers, mostly private schools and tutors.

That is, unless the South Carolina Supreme Court decides before then that the law violates the state constitution’s ban on public money directly benefiting private schools, as opponents argued to the justices in March. That lawsuit did not block the law’s implementation pending a ruling.

Advocates and critics respond

Supporters pointed to the 7,907 applications as proof that families are interested in the program. They suggested fewer students will be denied in the coming years as the agency works out the kinks, eligibility expands, and parents become more familiar with the application process.

The Palmetto Promise Institute, which has been lobbying for the school choice program for years, said it’s not discouraged by the rejected applications.

“They prove what we have been saying for months: South Carolinians crave flexibility and customization in their children’s education,” the conservative think tank said in a statement to the Gazette.

For critics, however, the fact that the department approved less than 40% of the applicants suggests demand was exaggerated, particularly among poor families eligible for this first round.

“To me, this is indicative that South Carolinians are already happy with either their public schools or the choices we have available,” such as public charter schools, said Patrick Kelly, a lobbyist with the Palmetto State Teachers Association and a high school teacher.

House Education Chairwoman Shannon Erickson said the large number of denials could be explained by parents not understanding the process or not knowing about it in time to complete it. The two-month window for applications started in mid-January. The process could have been too confusing, she said.

“I understand a learning curve,” said the Beaufort Republican. “Perhaps we need to put a little more IT assistance into the process.”

Erickson proposed the budget clause allowing the empty slots to continue to be filled.

“That would stop the department from not letting students in because of an arbitrary date,” she said.

Kelly countered the date isn’t arbitrary: The March 15 deadline was put in the law to ensure public schools had enough time to create class schedules, he said.

If students decide to use the money to transfer to private schools during the school year, schools could end up scrambling, he said.

“I understand and appreciate the heartbeat behind the rolling window, but it could cause logistical issues,” said Kelly, a teacher at Blythewood High School.

The Palmetto Promise Institute, on the other hand, lauded Erickson’s proposed budget clause as a way of filling the remaining slots and ensuring the full $30 million set aside for the program goes to students. Even if it doesn’t, the state should celebrate the fact that many students got financial help, said the think tank formerly led by state Superintendent Ellen Weaver.

“We should not lose sight of the victory: Two thousand, eight hundred, and eighty South Carolina students are now able to choose the education that best fits them, an opportunity they likely could never have afforded otherwise,” the institute’s statement read. “That alone is worth celebrating.”

Eligibility and denials

For the coming school year, eligibility was limited to families making 200% of the federal poverty level, or $62,400 for a family of four.

Students also either had to be currently attending a public school or just starting kindergarten. The latter accounts for one of every five students approved for the program.

Under the law, the income and participation caps increase over the following two years. By the 2026-2027 school year, up to 15,000 students from families making up to 400% of the poverty level will be eligible.

The so-called “universal” school choice proposal passed by the House would’ve allowed students already in private and home schools to get scholarships and removed income eligibility rules by 2026. It called for the yearly cap on the number of participating students to be set by legislators through the budget process.

But less than 11% of the denials were due to parents’ incomes being above the limit.

In about 8% of cases, the students were either not yet old enough for kindergarten or too old for high school. Two students were denied because they don’t live in South Carolina.

Because the pool of eligible students was smaller this year, it made sense that fewer families would receive money, Erickson said.

“It was the least possible people” who could receive the money, she said.

An expansion, she said, would help families who earn just above the income limits but are still struggling. She pointed to the 539 students whose application were denied because their parents earned too much.

But Kelly pointed out that advocates for the program have touted it for decades as a way to help poor families stuck in failing schools afford another option for their children.

The fact that fewer of those families took advantage of the program than expected suggests that, even if numbers increase in coming years, it will be difficult to know how many disadvantaged students are using the money, he said.

“I think it paints a really compelling argument that there is no need for something like (universal school choice) in the near future,” Kelly said.

Editor’s note: The percentage of applications rejected due to deadlines has been corrected to 79%. 

SC Daily Gazette is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. SC Daily Gazette maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Seanna Adcox for questions: info@scdailygazette.com. Follow SC Daily Gazette on Facebook and Twitter.

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