Politics & Government

April 19, 2014

Exclusive: Two in three in SC favor tax break for private school grant donations, according to poll

South Carolinians are open to the idea of giving tax breaks for donations to organizations that help families pay for private school, according to a new Winthrop Poll.

South Carolinians are open to the idea of giving tax breaks for donations to organizations that help families pay for private school, according to a new Winthrop Poll.

Support for that type of private school choice program is far greater than what South Carolinians said in an October poll about another kind of school choice, one that gives taxpayer money – in the form of tax credits or vouchers – directly to parents who send their children to private school.

Two out of three South Carolinians surveyed said they support giving state tax deductions to scholarship organizations that help children pay for private or religious schools, according to the poll question, asked exclusively for The State. One in four surveyed opposed the idea.

The survey, which interviewed 877 S.C. adults from April 6-13, had a 3.3 percentage-point margin of error.

According to the October Winthrop Poll, S.C. residents were more evenly split on the idea of giving tax credits or “vouchers” to parents to send their children to private schools, with 45 percent supporting the idea and 42 percent opposing it.

Neil Mellen, an advocate for private school choice in South Carolina, said he was encouraged by the most recent poll, saying it reflects a growing acceptance of the type of private school choice that the state recently began offering.

Last year, the state passed a school-choice program similar to the one described in Wednesday’s poll, but with two differences: South Carolina offers dollar-for-dollar tax credits for donations made to nonprofits granting private school scholarships, not tax deductions, which have less financial impact on taxpayers. Under current state law, the grants also must only go to special-needs students, where the Winthrop Poll question does not limit who would benefit from the program.

Opponents of private school choice say its advocates have found a new way to package their previous goal – directing taxpayer money into the private school system – rather than focusing on ways to improve public schools.

Roger Smith, executive director of the S.C. Education Association, said criticism of the state’s public education system is swaying public opinion toward thinking private school choice programs are necessary. Instead, Smith said, the choice programs only lead to more public school neglect.

Winthrop Poll director Scott Huffmon said the April and October polls are “flashlights, not spotlights,” highlighting very specific aspects of the school-choice debate. They do not reflect a clear picture of public attitudes toward school choice – an issue the public has little information on, Huffmon said.

The two polls suggest South Carolinians’ support for using public money to help children attend private school depends on the phrasing of the question that they are asked, advocates and opponents agreed.

South Carolinians “probably don’t see tax deductions as taking money away from (public) schools in the same way that they perceive vouchers as taking money away from schools,” said Winthrop’s Huffmon.

In the October poll, those surveyed were told some people think giving tax credits and vouchers to help students pay for private school would take money away from public schools, while others think credits and vouchers would help children get out of failing schools.

That wording was not part of the question asked in the April poll.

Mellen said the public is learning more and more about the state’s new private school-choice program for students with disabilities. The fact that none of the money for the grants flows through state coffers adds to the public’s support, he said.

“Donors are able to see where their money is going, and they can direct it to the programs that are most effective and do the most good,” Mellen said, adding he opposes voucher programs that would give state money directly to parents.

But critics say private school choice advocates just have found a new way to package the channeling of public dollars into private schools.

“There’s a difference in giving the money to parents as opposed to giving the money to organizations that grant scholarships – that probably gets a different feeling out of people, even though the practical effect is the same,” said Patrick Hayes of EdFirstSC, a Charleston-area teacher advocacy group.

South Carolina allows taxpayers to offset up to 60 percent of their state tax bill by contributing to nonprofits that give private school choice scholarships to students with disabilities.

That represents tax revenue that is lost to the state, Hayes and others said.

All Registered voters Approve 66.1% 62.3% Disapprove 26.1% 29.8% Not sure 7.3% 7.5% Refused to answer 0.6% 0.5%

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