First-of-its-kind program in S.C.

Private school-choice on hold

jself@thestate.comJanuary 9, 2014 

  • Groups planning to offer scholarships

    •  Columbia-based Advance Carolina. Associated with the S.C. Association of Christian Schools, Advance Carolina would provide scholarships to Christian private schools in that network.

    •  Mount Pleasant-based Palmetto Kids First Scholarship Program. Founded by Jeff Davis, who helped create a private-school tax-credit program in Georgia.

    •  St. Thomas Aquinas SFO. Affiliated with the Roman Catholic Diocese of Charleston, the scholarship organization would work specifically to provide scholarships to assist students with attending Catholic schools in the diocese.

    •  S.C. Corporate Coalition for Community Service. Driving the effort is Stephen Gilchrist, president of the S.C. African-American Chamber of Commerce and long-time supporter of school choice.

Karl Hoecke had just given a tour of his school Thursday that featured stops by the library, paintings he made of the four seasons, and the place where they store the “Bunnies’ Brew” – organic fertilizer the students make in their garden using their pet rabbit’s poop – when his classmates gathered around him.

“Good job, Karl!” said one student, high-fiving Karl, a 19-year-old with Down syndrome – a gesture quickly followed by his other classmates at the Barclay School, a school for special needs children located on the campus of Columbia College.

Some of the seven students attending the private school, located in an old house on the Columbia College campus, likely will be eligible to receive scholarships through the state’s first private-school choice program, said the school’s head, Gillian Barclay-Smith.

But that program is on hold as a state education agency evaluates four nonprofit organizations – called scholarship-funding organizations – so that they can accept donations and offer private-school scholarships to special-needs students.

Last year, the General Assembly approved the program, offering up to $8 million in tax credits for donations made to the scholarship organizations. Jan. 1 was the first day taxpayers could make donations eligible for a dollar-for-dollar reduction of up to 60 percent of the donor’s tax liability.

More than 40 private schools, located mostly in the Charleston, Greenville and Columbia areas, have been approved to enroll scholarship students.

But without an organization to donate to, the program is on hold.

Potential scholarship recipients are not the only ones waiting for the program to begin, said Jeff Davis with Palmetto Kids First, a Mount Pleasant-based scholarship organization that Davis launched.

While awaiting approval, Palmetto Kids First has received $2 million in pledges. From 200 to 250 students also are applying for scholarships, Davis said. Checks are starting to come in, but they are not being deposited yet.

Clearing hurdles

The S.C. Education Oversight Committee, the state’s education research and accountability agency, has been reviewing the applications from scholarship organizations, the first of which came in mid-December, said Melanie Barton, executive director.

The delay on the state’s end, Barton said, is due in part to the Oversight Committee having to hire an outside attorney to vet those applications.

The state law that authorized the tax credit and scholarship program requires that board members of scholarship organizations must not have been convicted of a felony or declared bankruptcy in the last seven years.

Conducting background checks requires special expertise, Barton said.

That task is made more difficult because, for example, one of the scholarship organization’s board members lives outside the United States, she said, requiring international background checks.

Groups soliciting charitable donations, except religious ones, also must register with S.C. Secretary of State Mark Hammond’s office, said Shannon Wiley, deputy general counsel.

‘The size they need’

At the Barclay School, the state’s school-choice program will “allow for us to help more children” as more families find ways to pay for the school, where tuition is $15,000 before financial aid helps meet some of that cost, Barclay-Smith said.

Having heard about the scholarships, a family came by the school this week to see about applying, she added.

Karl’s mother, Catherine Hoecke, said her son is a likely candidate for a scholarship, which will help offset some of the cost of the school.

Hoecke, a former educator in various public and private settings, home-schooled her son until last year, when she wanted him to learn in an environment where he would have opportunities for leadership.

Karl is a “very social creature, loves people, loves learning new things, (and has) a real love of history and science and art,” she said, adding the school fosters those strengths while also working on developing students’ independence and interpersonal skills.

“Most parents with kids with special needs lay awake at night wondering what education is being provided for their child. ... Is it really what they need?” she said. The scholarship opportunity, she added, is “a tremendous advantage, particularly for those students who fall within the scope of special needs.”

“It’s a burden we lay upon the public schools to expect them to meet the needs of all of these incredibly diverse children,” she said.

“Yes, I think they can meet the needs of most of them, but when a school like Barclay comes along to meet the needs of those kids ... like my son, if the shoe fits, why shouldn’t we give them the size they need?”

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Reach Self at (803)771-8658

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