Discussions on Education Scholarship Account bill continue in Senate committee

Published: Mar. 9, 2022 at 9:18 PM EST|Updated: Mar. 9, 2022 at 9:25 PM EST
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CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - Discussion continues at the State House over a bill that would give families state dollars to send their kids to private schools.

S.935 would create Education Scholarship Accounts, and families would be able to use the money in these accounts on tuition, fees, textbooks, and other allowable expenses.

After hearing hours of public testimony and debate, lawmakers have more narrowly tailored the bill at this point from its original form so that only children who are Medicaid eligible, attend “underperforming” schools, or have an IEP would qualify.

The ESA program would also eventually be capped at 15,000 students, representing about 2% of South Carolina’s student population.

“That’s what this is all about: Giving a parent an option other than what they have when they know their child’s not receiving the education they know they deserve,” Sen. Larry Grooms, R – Berkeley, said.

But based on senators’ discussion Wednesday in a Senate Education Committee meeting, there are still quite a few more questions to answer before the bill can advance to the Senate floor for debate.

Much of their conversation Wednesday centered on how the program would be funded, and more specifically, how it would affect the money going to public schools, which operate on a combination of federal, state, and local dollars, with state and local allocations eclipsing what the federal government provides.

Under the bill, the state funding assigned to a student — about $7,000 — would come out of their home district and follow them if they have an Education Scholarship Account. If the program hit its cap of 15,000 students, about $105 million in state funding could be diverted from public schools.

But Sen. Greg Hembree, R – Horry and the chair of the Senate Education Committee, noted local dollars, which primarily come from property taxes, would remain in the student’s home district.

“This sort-of narrative that we’re taking money away from the public schools is simply misleading,” Hembree said. “It’s not telling the whole truth. It’s telling a partial truth. You’re taking the state money away, it’s following the student, but you’re also taking away the burden of teaching that student in that district.”

Senate Minority Brad Hutto, D – Orangeburg, responded that while the responsibility of educating students who leave because of an ESA would no longer lie with their home district, those schools would still retain their usual costs, without the additional state dollars coming in to assist.

“If you take two children out of a classroom in two or three different grades in a school, that district still has to pay all the same number of teacher salaries as they had before,” Hutto said. “They still have to have the same number of school buses running. They still have to have the same cafeteria staff there. They still have to pay for the same roof when it leaks.”

Hutto said during the meeting that he will propose an amendment adjust the funding source for the ESA program, so that the money for those accounts would come from another state fund instead of out of districts’ allocations.

Grooms said he believes there should be a “circuit-breaker” in place so schools would not lose money from one year to the next if more students left because of ESAs than the number of new students entering the district.

“There would be a backstop for that. There would be a fund set up, and a school district could apply to receive those funds,” Grooms said, adding he planned to introduce that amendment on the Senate floor during debate.

Sen. Darrell Jackson, D – Richland, made the case for stronger anti-discrimination language in the bill to ensure state money would not go to schools that could deny admission to LGBTQ+ students and families, saying he would also introduce an amendment to address that.

“Are we really comfortable in funding an institution that says we will not allow your child in because your child identifies as being gay?” Jackson said.

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