SC Senate passes second school voucher bill in as many months

Republican leaders at the State House have made expanding school choice in South Carolina a priority this year.
Published: Mar. 16, 2023 at 5:56 PM EDT|Updated: Mar. 17, 2023 at 12:28 AM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WCSC) - Republican leaders at the State House have made expanding school choice in South Carolina a priority this year.

This week, lawmakers passed their second school voucher bill in as many months, though with key differences from earlier legislation.

This bill expands a program already in place, called “Academic Choice in Education” or “ACE,” which encourages people and companies to fund scholarships to send certain kids to private schools.

In exchange, donors receive state tax credits.

These scholarships are currently only available to special-education students, but this bill, S.285, would expand it to many more kids.

“It’s a big win for children who are trapped in underperforming schools, so I think this gives additional choices for those children, for those families, to try something different,” Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, R – Edgefield, said Thursday after the Senate passed the bill and sent it to the House of Representatives.

Students could qualify for these scholarships if they have a disability that requires special-education services, have a family income below a certain level or are homeschooled.

The amount they would receive would depend on which of the above categories they fall into.

A student whose family has an income of up to 400% of the federal poverty level, around $120,000 for a family of four, could receive a scholarship equal to the cost allocated to public schools for each student in the annual state budget. The amount is currently around $7,000.

Special-education students and Medicaid-eligible students could receive a scholarship worth 140% of the per-pupil cost, roughly $10,000.

They could use this money to pay for private-school tuition and other related expenses.

Students could also use ACE Scholarship money to pay for homeschool costs, such as curriculum, though they could only receive 20% of the per-pupil amount, which would be about $1,400 this year.

Senators set a $55 million cap on the amount of tax credits that can be awarded annually in exchange for donations to fund the scholarships.

During debate, they approved an amendment that sets a $10,000 per-donor limit in nonrefundable tax credits claimed in the first 45 days of each fiscal year, but donors can claim more after that date if money remains.

Senators passed the bill in a 28-9 vote, largely along party lines but with some Democratic support.

“We have been hearing about this a lot more since COVID,” Massey said. “You’re hearing it from people who are on both sides of the issue. We had Democrats voting for this bill yesterday because they’re hearing from their constituents about the need for more options as well.”

This is the second school voucher program the Senate has passed since this legislative session started in mid-January.

The other one would establish “Education Scholarship Accounts,” which would directly give families public dollars to send their kids to private schools and pay for related costs. That bill passed in the Senate along party lines, with no Democratic support.

Sen. Mike Fanning, D – Fairfield and an advocate for public schools and teachers, initially supported the ACE Scholarships bill.

But he eventually voted against it, saying it was because the other voucher bill had already passed.

“Even though the bill we passed yesterday was the better of the two options, we can’t double-down on private education that benefits 5% of the population and do nothing for the 95% of the children left in public schools,” Fanning said.

Massey said the Senate passed a second bill because it would provide additional school choice options.

“South Carolina is the only state in the southeast that doesn’t have a robust choice program, the only one, and we’ve seen some significant successes in other states,” he said. “None of those have led to the explosion of the public school system.”

Both bills are now under consideration in the House of Representatives, where Republican leaders have also set expanding school choice among their priorities.

Other school choice bills under consideration at the State House right now include open-enrollment legislation, which would allow students to attend any public school in the state, regardless of where they live, as long as there is space.