Public opposition to S.C. private-school choice flares

jself@thestate.comOctober 23, 2013 

  • School choice in S.C.

    Current law, approved for a year as part of the state’s 2013-14 budget: Taxpayers can claim credits for donations, starting Jan. 1, to scholarship-funding organizations created exclusively to provide private-school scholarships to students with disabilities. Taxpayers qualify for a dollar-for-dollar tax credit good for up to 60 percent of their state tax liability. The state will grant to $8 million in tax credits.

    Sen. Larry Grooms’ bill would: Expand state law to include tax credits for donations made to organizations granting scholarships to low-income students. Tax credits would be capped at $15 million for low-income scholarships and $10 million for special needs-student scholarships. It also would include tax deductions for parents who opt to send their children to private school, home school them or send them to a school outside their home district.

— Suspicion that private-school choice would dismantle public education and revive a segregation-era expansion of private schools fueled criticism Wednesday of a state Senate bill that would expand the state’s first private-school choice program.

Speaking before a Senate panel in North Charleston, the Rev. Joe Darby, a Columbia native, said he worried the program, started with good intentions, would expand and lead to more inequity in the public-school system.

Darby compared the push for private-school choice to the segregation era, saying what seemed, at first, as “incremental and sensible” laws designed for public safety “eventually became Jim Crow.”

The desire to keep races segregated in South Carolina led to a burst in private schools, said Patrick Hayes, with EdFirstSC, a teacher advocacy group.

Supporters of private-school choice say it complements public education, adding to an already growing list of private and public-school options.

Michael Acquilano, an attorney with the Catholic Diocese of Charleston, pointed to schools in his network that serve mostly minorities. “We want to offer these programs to kids that couldn’t get it otherwise.”

The General Assembly approved a private-school choice program this year. Starting in January, donations made for scholarships to help students with special needs attend private school will be eligible for a tax credit.

Neil Mellen, an advocate of the state’s school-choice program, said some parents see enrolling their special-needs children in private school as the only way to get them the education that they need. “They say, ‘I didn’t choose to have a child with a severe disability.’ ”

The scholarships made possible through the state’s tax-credit program will benefit those parents, who already have made sacrifices, Mellen said.

School-choice proponents in the Legislature hope that narrow program, slated to start in January, will pave the way for a broader proposal that state Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Berkeley, has been pushing for years.

Grooms’ bill would expand the tax credit to include private-school scholarships for low-income students and tax deductions for parents who have private- or home-schooled students or students that attend public schools outside their districts.

The Senate panel is tasked with reviewing Grooms’ proposal, which faced heated opposition Wednesday.

Kathi Regalbuto, a former Berkeley County educator and parent of children who attended public and private schools, called private-school vouchers “a retreat from our collective responsibility to educate our children” in public schools.

Jane Pulling, with the League of Women Voters, said the legislation was an effort to circumvent the state’s constitutional obligation to provide a free and quality public school system.

“Whether you call it vouchers or whether you call it tax credits, you are still taking money out of the general fund” that could go to education, said Jackie Hicks, president of the S.C. Education Association.

Hayes, of EdFirstSC, the teacher advocacy group, said the push for private-school choice in South Carolina is in part coming from Howard Rich, a multimillionaire New York developer who funnels money into the campaign accounts of conservatives who support his causes.

Few speakers Wednesday supported Grooms’ proposal.

Grooms was unfazed, saying the Senate panel toured two schools Wednesday that specialized in teaching special-needs students.

“There were plenty of supporters (there),” he said, adding some private-school choice supporters may not have come to the hearing because the issue is political and “emotionally charged.” Also, some people think supporting private-school choice is “a threat to public education, and it is not,” he said.

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Reach Self at (803) 771-8658.

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