S.C. Budget Talks

School-choice debate looms in budget talks

jself@thestate.comJune 13, 2013 


TRACY GLANTZ — tglantz@thestate.com Buy Photo

— A debate over how much private school “choice” S.C. taxpayers should subsidize looms as lawmakers work to adopt a budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1.

The S.C. House and Senate differ over whether private or public 4-year-old kindergarten providers should benefit most from an expansion of the state’s 4K program for at-risk children.

They also disagree on a plan to give tax breaks for donations made for private-school scholarships that are made available to children with disabilities or living in poverty.

A panel of three state senators and three representatives – two Republicans and one Democrat from each chamber – will meet Friday in an effort to resolve differences between the two chambers’ spending plans.

The General Assembly returns to the State House Tuesday with hopes of passing the spending plan next week. If they fail, the state government could face a shutdown.

School-choice proponents see both expanding K4 and private-school scholarships – a small part of budget negotiations – as opportunities to expand S.C. families’ access to private schools. Advocates secured a victory this year when the Senate adopted tax credits for donations made to organizations giving private-school scholarships to “exceptional needs” students – children with disabilities.

Those tax credits passed after the Senate rejected tax credits for scholarships for children living in poverty and tax deductions for parents whose children are home-schooled or attend private school.

But even passing a scaled-down version of school choice in the Senate is good news for supporters who have fought for years, with little success in the Senate, to push the proposals through.

“It forces serious conversation,” said Senate Majority Leader Harvey Peeler, R-Cherokee, who supports expanded private-school choice. “That’s what we’re going to have.”

“It certainly makes it easier for the proponents of (school choice) to try to expand it,” said Senate Minority Leader Nikki Setzler, D-Lexington, the Senate’s lone Democrat on the budget committee.

Pushing private-school choice

The Senate and House both proposed tax credits for donations made to organizations that grant private-school scholarships to some children.

The Senate agreed to give tax credits for scholarships for disabled students, while the House voted to expand that program to include children living in poverty, a plan the Senate had rejected.

“Expansion has clearly not been the position of the Senate,” said Setzler, who opposes expanding school choice to low-income families when the S.C. General Assembly spends $670 less per student on public education than state law recommends.

“When you’re still underfunding (public education), how do you start talking about giving tax credits (for students to go to private school)?”

The other school-choice debate will center on whether the proposed expansion of the state’s existing full-day, 4-year-old kindergarten program for at-risk children should favor private or public preschools.

The 4K program now exists in 37 rural, high-poverty school districts. The Senate and House would expand the program to move into other districts with high poverty.

The demand for state-supported 4K programs, offered by private schools, has outpaced state funding, said Dan Wuori, chief program officers for S.C. First Steps to School Readiness, which oversees private 4K programs.

The Senate’s proposal would send 85 percent of $26 million in new state money for 4K to public schools and 15 percent to private preschools, how the money currently is distributed.

The House plan would reduce that amount to $15 million and swap the percentages, giving 85 percent of the money to private schools – making the program available to more people, supporters say.

The remaining $11 million would go to the ABC Child Care program, run by the S.C. Department of Social Services. That money would provide low-income families with child-care vouchers to use in 4K programs.

The panel likely will agree on a point in between the competing proposals, said state Rep. Gary Simrill, R-York, who will participate in budget negotiations Friday.

But finding the right balance will be difficult given the time-crunch of budget negotiations, he said.

But Simrill points to the Senate as the reason the debate exists at all.

“The irony is that we are arguing over two (school choice) provisions that were put in by the Senate,” Simrill said. “Now, that they’re in there ... it behooves us to move that ball forward.”

Peeler said the Senate opened the door to more debate about choice proposals. The House, in expanding those programs, “upped the ante,” he said.

Points of contention

Disagreements over how to expand the state’s public 4-year-old kindergarten program for at-risk children and tax credits for private-school scholarships remain.

S.C. 4K expansion

Senate plan: $26 million in new money, 85% for public 4K programs, 15% for private

House plan: $15 million in new money, 85% for private 4K programs, 15% for public. Also, $11 million for ABC Child Care vouchers for 4K programs

Tax credits for private-school scholarships

House credits: For scholarships for children with disabilities and living in poverty. Available up to 60 percent of tax liability. Capped at $10 million

Senate credits: For disabled-student scholarships only. Available up to full amount of tax liability or $10,000, whichever is lower. Capped at $5 million

Reach Self at (803)771-8658

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