SC Senate approves school voucher bill, moves on to House of Representatives

On Tuesday, senators voted along party lines, 28-15, to give S.39 second reading, essentially passing it.
Published: Jan. 31, 2023 at 8:28 PM EST|Updated: Jan. 31, 2023 at 9:58 PM EST

COLUMBIA, S.C. (WCSC) - A push to give certain South Carolina families public dollars to send their children to private schools has now cleared a major hurdle at the State House.

On Tuesday, senators voted along party lines, 28-15, to give S.39 second reading, essentially passing it.

“There will be children whose lives will be changed for the better because of this bill,” Sen. Greg Hembree, R – Horry and chair of the Senate Education Committee, told reporters after the debate.

At full implementation, the bill could cost up to $90 million, giving up to 15,000 students a year — scaling up from 5,000 students in program’s first year and 10,000 in the second — $6,000 in state money in an Education Scholarship Account (ESA) to pay for private-school tuition and other allowable costs, including books, fees, and transportation.

When debate began on the Senate floor about two weeks ago, students who were Medicaid-eligible or had an IEP could qualify for an ESA.

But during debate, senators dropped the IEP eligibility and expanded income eligibility to families with an income at 200% of the federal poverty level in the program’s first year, 300% in the second, and 400% in the third year and beyond, which would include families making up to around $129,000 annually.

“This is the core of the middle class in South Carolina. These are folks who ought to have the opportunity to send their children to the school of their choice by way of the program we are discussing here today,” Rep. Wes Climer, R – York, said during debate.

Hembree said scaling up the income eligibility would give “the first bite of the apple” to lower-income families, whose children would remain eligible to receive an ESA in future years.

Democrats criticized that eligibility expansion, noting Republican supporters had previously championed the voucher program as a way to provide educational opportunities for poorer families, specifically, who would otherwise not have them.

“I’m not against any South Carolinian that’s trying to better themselves and trying to make a provision for their family,” Sen. Ronnie Sabb, D – Williamsburg, said. “I think the fundamental question is not that. I would submit that the fundamental question is whether or not we use public funds to support private schools.”

Students receiving this money would be required to take a state assessment, like SC Pass or SC Ready, or a nationally norm-referenced test to measure how well the state-funded program is working.

Last year, different versions of an ESA bill passed both the Senate and House of Representatives, but the legislation fell short of reaching the governor’s desk over a disagreement on testing requirements.

This year’s Senate-passed bill would prohibit schools receiving this money from discriminating in admissions based on race, color, or national origin, but the Republican majority voted down pushes to ban discrimination based on religion and disability.

“There is no reason for any school to discriminate against a child in a wheelchair or a child that’s got some disability,” Senate Minority Leader Brad Hutto, D – Orangeburg, said, adding adopting the anti-disability discrimination language would not require schools to change their curriculum or build new facilities to accommodate those students.

But Republicans countered South Carolina schools that are geared toward educating students with disabilities could be negatively impacted by that requirement.

“If you have a school that is designed for, that focuses on children with autism, and you tell the school that you’ve got to accept every other kind of disability as well, what you are necessarily going to do is you’re going to reduce the effectiveness of that school to focus on its autistic children,” Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, R – Edgefield, said.

Democrats’ amendments to require private schools provide meals and transportation to ESA students were voted down as well.

Senators did adopt a bipartisan amendment to require students who use this money to attend online schools receive wellness checks at least twice a year at their resident public school, to monitor for signs of child abuse and other issues.

Members of both parties said during debate they have concerns about the legality of this program, as South Carolina’s constitution prohibits state dollars from directly going to private schools.

Republicans added language Tuesday they said was designed to protect against legal challenges, saying the 2020 Adams v. McMaster case — in which the state Supreme Court blocked Gov. Henry McMaster from directing federal COVID dollars to private schools — provided guidance on how to structure the voucher legislation.

“Constitutionally, I think we’ve built the best bill that we could build,” Hembree said. “It’s a case of first impression. We’ve never done this before in South Carolina.”

Senators will have to give the bill one more perfunctory vote Wednesday to officially pass the legislation and send it to the House of Representatives.