A school voucher scheme that would allow parents in South Carolina to use public school dollars earmarked for their children for a variety of private educational expenses is expected to receive serious attention in the legislature this year.
The controversial proposal, which would take public K-12 public school money and funnel it into education grant accounts that parents of low-income and special-needs students can access to pay for private education, has finally been the focus of the Senate Education Committee. A week, another session is scheduled for Wednesday.
The Senate bill aims to provide opportunities for children whose needs are not met by public schools, but whose parents cannot afford special education options.
“You have poor children who are stuck in always failing schools with no way out,” said Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, R. Edgefield. “And we fail those kids if we don’t give them opportunities.”
The program will be capped initially and set to expand gradually over five years, at which point nearly half of South Carolina students will be eligible for scholarship accounts.
The plan differs from a traditional voucher program in that parents can use the money — about $7,000 per child per year — on a variety of educational expenses, not just private school tuition. Allowed expenses include teaching services, computers and technology, learning materials, educational advisors, financial management of education accounts, and school transportation fees, among others.
The House has an almost identical proposal that York State Majority Leader Gary Semrill of York said would be a priority in 2022. He told the state that the lower chamber proposal, which has yet to be heard, would be designed as a pilot.
Lawmakers have debated school vouchers in one form or another for nearly two decades, including a similar bill Massey introduced in 2019 that rescinded the pandemic because of the pandemic, but some say they believe this could be the year such legislation is finally passed.
“I think there is a very strong appetite in the Senate for enacting some form of expanded school selection,” said Senator Tom Davis, a Beaufort Republican. “I have seen that this has been the theme throughout the pandemic. Parents want alternatives in case their current public school is not open to in-person learning or if they are not happy with the default model in place.”
He said the pandemic’s impact on schools and student learning has spurred parental demand for school choice and has turned education into a central issue for Republican politicians across the country.
Massey agreed that interest in school choice has grown exponentially in the COVID era.
“On the one hand, you have parents who are frustrated with the lack of opportunities or the lack of personal education. On the other hand, you have parents who are frustrated at the schools not providing the protection they thought the children needed.” “The common denominator these parents have is that they want a different surrogate.”
Coupon bill gets backlash from parents and teachers
The initial hearing on the voucher law attracted a cadre of parents, teachers and public education advocates who condemned its potential impact on public schools, questioned its effectiveness and criticized its oversight of private entities that would be recipients of public tax funds.
Colin O’Connell, a former middle school teacher now with the South Carolina Education Association, testified that funding some students’ private education through scholarship accounts would hurt the majority of students who continue to attend public schools.
“The scholarship account vouchers are untested, unaccountable and unsustainable,” she said. “They are a danger to our public school system here.”
Since every dollar transferred to a scholarship account is an amount withdrawn from a public school, critics argue that the program will only exacerbate the problems plaguing public schools.
Marvin Byers, a retired Richland 1 school district principal, said he fears a situation similar to what public schools faced during the Great Recession when teachers were laid off, programs were cut short and class sizes increased.
“When money is withdrawn from the public domain, all programs are at risk,” he said. “Teachers are being laid off and schools are less able to meet the needs of all students.”
Supporters of scholarship accounts play down its economic impact on public schools, arguing that funding losses are limited by the relatively small number of students who actually benefit from them.
In larger states with well-established scholarship account programs, such as Arizona or Florida, only a small portion of students apply, they say.
Should all eligible students apply under South Carolina’s current proposal, the cost would be astronomical. The Financial Impact Statement from the Office of Revenue and Finance estimates that scholarship funding could reach nearly $3 billion within five years, once an enrollment cap is not set. This equates to nearly all of the state’s classroom aid for the past year.
Despite the bill’s potentially significant impact on the state’s Department of Education budget, the agency will have only a limited role in the voucher program. The primary responsibility will be to ensure that students receiving vouchers are not enrolled in public schools.
The Department of Administration will actually operate the program, but can contract with private vendors to manage some or all aspects of the program. The state will pay the start-up costs and then deduct up to 4% of the education grant money annually to cover the program’s operating costs, estimated at approximately $2.3 million.
The Education Oversight Committee will be tasked with examining education providers, collecting data on the program and reviewing progress every five years.
State Superintendent Molly Spearman said she believes the state should play a role in facilitating school selection, but stressed that any voucher program must be run by an entity that has experience and knowledge in K-12 education and must have a way to measure and compare students’ academic achievement.
Opponents of scholarship accounts maintain that oversight and accountability for such programs is questionable.
Critics pointed to problems with running an exceptional program, the South Carolina special needs schools’ selection program, and issues other states had with parents making questionable expenses and misusing public dollars.
An analysis of the Arizona voucher program found that relatively few students in low-performing areas took advantage of it. Often, students in affluent, high-performing areas used vouchers to enroll in private schools.
There is also a question as to whether students actually benefit from the special education services they purchase with vouchers. The proposal being discussed would require students receiving vouchers to take annual assessments to track their academic progress, but these assessments would not necessarily be the same as those taken by public school students.
When voucher recipients don’t take the same standardized tests as public school students, it becomes difficult to compare achievement and assess whether the programs are actually working, said Patrick Kelly, director of government affairs for the Palmetto State Teachers Association.
“The (educational) consumer must be provided with sufficient information to make an informed decision between two options,” he said. However, “it is almost impossible for anyone but the test expert to make meaningful comparisons between these data sets.”
Kelly said his organization strongly supports increasing school choice by investing in charter schools and expanding open enrollment across public schools, but has significant concerns about education grant accounts.
He said any proposal for school selection should be entirely affordable, accessible to all students and appropriately accountable to the state. Kelly said the proposed Tuition Calculation Bill failed on all three measures.
For example, a $7,000 voucher wouldn’t be enough to cover tuition at many private schools, he said.
Furthermore, because private schools can refuse to accept students for any reason other than race, color, or national origin, voucher recipients can still be denied services because of their gender, religion, sexual orientation, disability status, academic aptitude, or other reason.
“It’s a bit embarrassing to tell a family at 200% poverty that the state will give you an education grant account so you can choose the best setting for your child, but when the family does the research and chooses a private school, the school won’t accept the child,” Kelly said.
Massey acknowledged there were legitimate concerns about the bill that lawmakers will have to address in the coming weeks, and said it would be critical to clarify issues of eligibility, funding and accountability in particular.
He said that amendments to the bill will certainly be needed to move forward, but he believes lawmakers are committed to getting the school choice bill across the finish line this year.
“The difficulty is how do you make it work. How do you get enough buying from different quarters that people feel like, ‘Hey, this is something that can really help kids, but at the same time not be harmful anywhere else?'” Massey said. “I think we have this opportunity. It will take some work, but I think we can get there.”