South Carolina House Approves ‘Universal’ School Choice Before Pilot Even Begins

The bill approved 69-32 along party lines seeks to exponentially expand South Carolina’s K-12 scholarship program before it even starts.

(L-R) Democratic Reps. Kambrell Garvin of Blythewood, Annie McDaniel of Winnsboro, Russell Ott of St. Matthews and Gilda Cobb-Hunter of Orangeburg talk during the opening week of session Thursday, Jan. 11, 2024, at the Statehouse in Columbia, S.C. All were among Democrats who voted against expanding South Carolina’s K-12 voucher program. (Mary Ann Chastain/Special to the SC Daily Gazette)

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COLUMBIA — All South Carolina students would qualify for K-12 vouchers under legislation approved Wednesday by House Republicans, who repeatedly refused to set limitations or requirements on private schools taking the taxpayer money.

The bill approved 69-32 along party lines (with two Republicans voting “no”) seeks to exponentially expand South Carolina’s K-12 scholarship program before it even starts. Applications for the first round are still under review. Payments to parents aren’t set to start until July. And the state Supreme Court has yet to settle whether the idea is even constitutional.

But House Republicans were unfazed by questions about the rush from pilot year to “universal” availability.

Rep. Russell Ott, D-St. Matthews, said opponents feared last year this was where the Legislature was heading, but he’s stunned Republicans are “audacious enough” to pull the switcheroo so quickly.

“What frustrates me is that the arguments laid out in support of the legislation last year are out of the window now. They’re gone,” he said, referring to the passionate pleas to help poor children trapped in failing public schools. “Before the first scholarship is ever awarded, we have this bill that absolutely blows a hole a mile wide in everything that was discussed last year.

“The other thing it blows a hole in is our state budget,” he said.

Under the law signed last May, 5,000 low-income students will receive $6,000 scholarships that their parents can use in the coming school year for private tuition, tutoring, transportation, textbooks and other classroom expenses. That will cost $30 million. By 2026, the cap rises to 15,000 students from higher-income homes. But income still factors into eligibility, with a ceiling of $125,000 for a family of four, for example.

Under the bill, the scholarship amount would increase yearly, while all income eligibility rules would be gone by 2026. Instead of costing taxpayers $90 million in 2026-27, the program would cost an expected $106 million, according to the state Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Office. What it would cost after that is unknown.

The bill would also remove the eligibility rule that students entering the program must either be currently attending a public school or entering kindergarten.

Instead, starting in 2027, all K-12 students would be eligible for the taxpayer-funded scholarships. That includes the estimated 57,000 South Carolina students already in private schools and 33,000 children educated at home. Based on similar, existing programs in Arizona and Florida, state fiscal experts predict that 12% of South Carolina’s public school students will also want to sign up, which would be 95,000 students.

Do the math, and the cost could top $1.4 billion annually.

However, actual costs would depend on whatever the Legislature decides to spend. While all students would be eligible, how many slots are ultimately funded would be part of the budget debate. The only thing known is that the annual cost would be somewhere north of $106 million.

“It will go through the budget process just like any other education funding,” said House Education Chairwoman Shannon Erickson, R-Beaufort.

As for timing, she said, applications for the inaugural year showed more interest than allowed slots.

Applications for 7,907 students were submitted by last Friday’s deadline. As of Monday, one in 10 had been denied for lack of eligibility, according to the state Department of Education.

Responding to accusations that last year’s law was supposed to be a pilot, Erickson said, “If I said ‘pilot,’ then I was mistaken. It was a start. It was a beginning. It was a way to start and see what interest there was.”

Democrats chastised Republicans as being fiscally irresponsible.

“No one knows what the financial impact is going to be. That’s dangerous,” said Rep. Justin Bamberg, D-Bamberg. “I don’t think it’s a good idea to gamble with the financial future of the districts in our state to accomplish a political objective.

“This is not about fiscally conservative or not conservative,” he added. “It’s about fiscal responsibility.”

In a debate that often seemed topsy-turvy, Democrats warned that the public aid would result in private schools increasing their costs. Even $6,000 won’t cover the cost of tuition for many private schools. The poor students who proponents used to argue they were trying to help will be especially impacted if private schools can simply hike their costs willy nilly, Democrats said.

“Private school tuition will increase. It happens when the government gives out money,” said Rep. Kambrell Garvin, D-Blythewood, a former teacher. “Private schools will see the opportunity to make more money.”

But Republicans rejected amendments that aimed to prevent schools from pricing students out or required the state to pay the full tuition costs for Medicaid-eligible students.

They also rejected attempts to cap annual increases in student participation or require participating private schools to accept all students.

Democrats warned that an influx of shady, for-profit schools would pop up to make money off the system, but an attempt to bar for-profit schools from participating also failed.

About 310 private schools, public school districts, online education programs and private tutoring services have been approved for the program’s inaugural year. A dozen are based outside of South Carolina, to include Texas, Colorado, Florida and Maryland, according to a list posted online by the state Department of Education, dated March 5. (The law allows students to use the money to enroll in another public school, as long as it’s not in their same school district.)

Republicans didn’t have to put up a fight during Democrats’ hours-long opposition. The outcome was already known in a chamber where Republicans have supermajority control.

A perfunctory vote Thursday will send the bill to the Senate, where its chances this year are slim, especially with just two months left in the regular session.

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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