South Carolina

SC Senate approves school voucher bill, next headed to House of Representatives

COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) – A push to give public funds to certain South Carolina families to send their children to private schools has now cleared a major hurdle in the state house.

On Tuesday, senators along the party line voted 28-15 to give S.39 a second reading and essentially pass it.

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

When fully implemented, the law could cost as much as $90 million and place up to 15,000 students per year – based on 5,000 students in the first year of the program and 10,000 in the second – $6,000 in government funds in an Education Scholarship Account (ESA ) Provide pay for private school tuition and other reimbursable expenses, including books, fees, and transportation.

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

But during the debate, senators dropped IEP eligibility and expanded income eligibility to families with incomes of 200% of the federal poverty line in year one of the program, 300% in year two and 400% in year three and beyond. This includes families who earn up to $129,000 annually.

“That’s the core of middle class in South Carolina. These are people who should be able to send their children to the school of their choice through the program we are debating here today,” MP Wes Climer, R – York, said during the debate.

According to Hembree, an increase in income eligibility would give lower-income families “the first bite of the apple” whose children would continue to be eligible for an ESA for years to come.

Democrats have criticized this expansion of eligibility, noting that Republican supporters had previously championed the voucher program to provide educational opportunities to poorer families, particularly those who would not otherwise have them.

“I’m not against a South Carolinian trying to better himself and provide for his family,” said Sen. Ronnie Sabb, D – Williamsburg. “I think that’s not the fundamental question. I would argue that the fundamental question is whether we are using public funds to support private schools.”

Students receiving this money would be required to take a state assessment, such as SC Pass or SC Ready, or a test related to national standards to measure how well the state-funded program is performing.

Last year, different versions of an ESA bill passed both the Senate and House of Representatives, but the legislation didn’t make it to the governor’s desk because of a disagreement over testing requirements.

This year’s Senate bill would ban schools receiving that money from discriminating in admissions based on race, color or national origin, but the Republican majority voted against, pushing to ban discrimination based on religion and disability.

“There is no reason for a school to discriminate against a child in a wheelchair or a child with a disability,” said Senate Minority Leader Brad Hutto, D – Orangeburg, adding that the introduction of anti-disability discrimination language would reduce the would not require schools to change their curriculum or build new facilities to accommodate these students.

However, Republicans countered that schools in South Carolina that cater to the education of students with disabilities could be negatively impacted by this requirement.

“If you have a school that caters to children with autism and you tell the school that you must accept any other type of disability as well, you absolutely have to go and reduce the effectiveness of that school in focusing on your autistic children to concentrate,” said Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, R – Edgefield.

Democrats’ amendments to require private schools to provide meals and transportation for ESA students were also defeated.

Senators passed a bipartisan amendment to require students who use that money to attend online schools to receive health checks at their local public school at least twice a year to look for signs of child abuse and other problems .

Members of both parties said during the debate they had concerns about the legality of this program because the South Carolina Constitution prohibits state dollars from going directly to private schools.

Republicans Tuesday added language they said was intended to protect against legal challenges, saying the Adams v. McMaster’s 2020 — in which the state Supreme Court blocked Gov. Henry McMaster from channeling federal COVID dollars to private schools — guidance on structuring coupon legislation.

“Constitutionally, I think we created the best law we could build,” Hembree said. “It’s about the first impression. We’ve never done that in South Carolina.”

Senators will have to give the bill another superficial approval on Wednesday in order to formally pass the bill and send it to the House of Representatives.

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