COLUMBIA — Buddy Lingle’s West Columbia foundation has been awarding small grants to low-income families to send their children to private schools for more than a decade.
Lingle, a South University pharmacy professor and director of Partners Advancing Choice in Education, would like to offer more than the current maximum grant of $2,000, adding, “If we had the funds ... we would be overrun with applications.”
Some Republican lawmakers tried this year to make it easier for groups like Lingle’s to raise money for private-school scholarships for students living in poverty or with disabilities. But the budget the Legislature has sent Gov. Nikki Haley, for the fiscal year that starts July 1, includes only a program aimed at helping special-needs children.
The program would provide a state tax credit for donations made to organizations that offer private-school scholarships exclusively to special-needs students. Donors could claim the credit and reduce their tax bill by up to 60 percent.
Donations to Lingle’s foundation, which makes grants to low-income families, would not qualify. But lawmakers who support the proposal say new organizations likely will form and existing ones could participate by meeting state guidelines – including committing at least 95 percent of their income to scholarships for disabled students.
Critics say the tax credit is just the beginning of expanding private school-choice programs in the state that will result in lost tax dollars for public schools.
But Lingle says the plan will help bring more money to families seeking more choice in schools.
South Carolina would become the 13th state offering tax credits for scholarships and the 13th to offer a program increasing access to private schools specifically to students with exceptional needs, according to the Friedman Foundation for Education Choice.
Chris Winkler, headmaster at Glenforest School, a West Columbia private school that specializes in teaching children with exceptional needs, said the tax credit would bring the state in line with other states offering similar tax credits and other forms of private-school choice.
At Glenforest, classrooms have five to 10 children in them, so teachers can provide individualized teaching for students – a big advantage for children with different learning disabilities. But that education is expensive, he said, adding not every parent can afford to write the check.
“Why can’t South Carolina find another way to do education?” he said.
Critics of the tax credit, and school-choice proposals generally, question whether the programs actually serve the children they say they will help.
Calls for private-school choice programs for handicapped children will give way to calls for programs for low-income students and, eventually, the real target – the children of affluent families already attending private schools.
“We don’t think the statistical evidence is there that shows these types of programs are education reform,” said Scott Price, an attorney with the S.C. School Boards Association. They help families “that already have their children in private schools. They’re experimental, they’re costly, and part of the issue is we’re underfunding K-12 public schools as it is.”
Price said he hopes Haley will nix the proposal, which is in the state budget on her desk awaiting vetoes. Creating a new state program through the budget is “terrible public policy,” he said.
It also is difficult to know how many disabled children would be able to participate in the newly formed scholarship programs, or how widespread the scholarships or schools eligible to participate would be.
As of December, more than 340 students with disabilities, ages 6 to 21, were placed in private schools by their parents while also receiving special needs services through their local public school district, said Jay W. Ragley, spokesman with the S.C. Department of Education.
If approved, the tax credit program would start small: the state would cap tax credits at the first $8 million in donations to scholarship-granting organizations, starting Jan. 1, and reconsider the program again in next year’s budget process. Scholarships would be for tuition or $10,000, whichever is lower.
In the long run, the program could lead to cost savings for the state if it strikes the right balance among the size of scholarships, the amount of tax credits awarded, and the number of students receiving the scholarships, said Josh Cunningham, a policy analyst with the National Council of State Legislatures.
However, scholarships that cost more than what the state would normally pay to educate a child could result in an overall loss for the state, he said.
Other states offering tax credits for scholarships have started small and gradually increased the cap on credits as the demand for scholarships has increased, Cunningham said.
Leaders of organizations that assist families with special-needs children say those students need more options, whether inside or outside the public school system.
Parents call often, asking for grants and education opportunities for their children, said Kim Thomas, interim director at the S.C. Autism Society, which provides assistance to about 3,000 S.C. families with children affected by autism.
But Mary Eaddy, director of PRO-Parents of South Carolina, a network for families with disabilities, said that even if the financial barrier disappears, private schools are not available for families in need. “If you’re a family that lives in a rural area, there is no access.”
Unlike public schools, private schools also are not required by law to provide an education to students – something parents should keep in mind when weighing their child’s education options.
“You have no right to a private-school education,” she said. “You give them your check. You hope they’re going to educate your child to the best of their ability.”
Tax credits for scholarships
A form of school choice, tax credits for scholarships are one way states are expanding students access to private-school choice:
12 – Number of states with existing tax-credit programs for scholarship donations: Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Virginia
23 – Number of states that considered creating new or amending existing scholarships programs in 2013, including New Hampshire, which considered and rejected a proposal to repeal an existing program, and South Carolina
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