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May 10, 2012

‘School choice’ bill alive, on shaky ground

A bill that would give tax deductions to parents of private and home school students made it out of a Senate subcommittee Wednesday, but the panel did not recommend its passage.

A bill that would give tax deductions to parents of private and home school students made it out of a Senate subcommittee Wednesday, but the panel did not recommend its passage.

State Sen. Wes Hayes, R-York, joined Sens. Phil Leventis of Sumter and John Matthews of Orangeburg, both Democrats, in voting down the House-passed bill over the objections of Republican state Sens. David Thomas of Greenville and Larry Grooms of Berkeley.

However, Hayes did join with his fellow Republicans to send the bill to the full Senate Finance Committee with no recommendation, rather than kill it.

“I don’t want this bill to die at subcommittee,” Hayes said. “But, philosophically, I’m still not ready to take public money and subsidize private and home schools.”

The bill would give parents a $4,000 tax deduction if they send their children to private schools, a $2,000 tax deduction if they home school their children and a $1,000 tax deduction if they transfer their child from one public school to another.

The proposals also would give businesses and individuals a dollar-for-dollar tax credit if they contribute to organizations that would give scholarships to low-income or handicapped students. However, those tax credits could not exceed $25 million statewide in a given year.

Critics say the bill amounts to spending public money to support private and home schools. They point to a report by the state Board of Economic Advisors that estimates the bill, if passed enacted, would cut state revenue by $36.7 million next year.

Scott Price, general counsel for the S.C. Association of School Boards, told senators that, according to the Education Finance Act, the state already underfunds K-12 education by almost $600 million. That law says the state should fund a base cost of $2,790 per student. But the House-approved budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1 only includes $2,012 per student.

“How can the General Assembly ... even consider (this) bill ... at a time when public schools had their funding cut by $700 million in recent years because of economy?” Price said.

But supporters say a tax deduction can’t be compared to spending public money.

“If you make a donation to the American Cancer Society, that’s tax deductible. No one claims you are stealing money from ... government agencies that engage in cancer research,” said Neil Mellen, research director for South Carolinians for Responsible Government, a group that supports the bill.

Supporters also point to other states that already have similar tax incentives, including Florida. That state offers tax credits to corporations that donate to organizations that provide scholarships to private-school students.

Since 2001, that program has given scholarships to 21,000 students, saving the state money in the process, according to Florida’s Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability. While the state lost corporate tax income, it saved money because it did not have to pay for the education of those students.

“(These programs) are widely popular with parents, reduce longstanding gaps in access to educational options, and stir innovation and competition among all types of schools – public and private,” said state Rep. Eric Bedingfield, R-Greenville, a sponsor of the bill.

The bill passed the S.C. House in March, the first time a school “choice” bill has passed since advocates started pushing the issue in 2004. Lawmakers have until June 7 to pass the bill; otherwise, it will die when the legislative session ends.

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