Interest in alternatives to traditional public schools is alive in the General Assembly.
The state Senate is debating a bill to bolster the state’s charter schools — public schools freed from many state requirements so that, advocates say, they can encourage innovation. The bill is the top legislation priority for State Superintendent of Education Mick Zais, a first-term Republican.
Meanwhile, the latest effort to aid parents who send their children to private schools has had some success.
The charter bill is anticipated to pass the Senate as early as today. It then would return to the House, which passed a different charter school bill last year.
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Lawmakers “increasingly understand that charter schools are public schools, that they’re not a threat to existing public schools, that one size does not fit all when it comes to education students,” said state Rep. Phil Owens, R-Pickens, the bill’s sponsor and chairman of the House Education Committee.
A “school choice” bill also has passed the House’s budget writing committee and soon will be heard on the House floor. It would provide tax deductions for parents who home school their children or send them to private schools.
Charter school changes
Senators on both sides of the political aisle say they anticipate reaching a deal on the charter school bill that would:
• Allow charter school students to participate in sports and other extracurricular activities at nearby traditional public schools. This would apply only if those activities are not offered at the student’s charter school.
• Allow for the creation of single-gender — boys’ or girls’ only — charter schools.
• Let colleges and universities authorize charter schools. Currently, only school districts and the state can approve new charter schools. “We anticipate that it will create very high-quality charter schools with high levels of academic achievement,” said Mary Carmichael, director of the Public Charter School Alliance, which represents 35 of the state’s 47 charter schools.
• Make is clear to school districts that they must pass state dollars along to charter schools — not sit on them for months. “We’ve had a few instances of that happening,” said Jay Ragley, spokesman for the state Department of Education.
The prospects of a “private school choice” are murkier.
Tax breaks for homeschoolers and parents of private school students are a long-standing legislative issue, raised nearly every session since 2004.
The Republican-dominated House previously has passed proposals to give tax benefits to parents who home school their children or send them to private schools. However, the GOP-controlled Senate — where a single member effectively can derail legislation — has never bought into the idea.
This session, nearly all House Republicans are sponsoring a school choice bill that would give parents a $4,000-a-year tax deduction for each child in private school. Parents who home-school their children would get a $2,000 deduction for home-school expenses.
Poor and disabled students would be eligible for private school scholarships. And those who donate to nonprofits that provide scholarships to private schools could claim tax credits.
The House, which has proven choice-friendly in the past, could take up the measure as early as this week. If passed, it would cost the state about $37 million in lost revenue in 2012-13.
The battle will come in the Senate, where many senators support public schools because their suburban districts have good school systems or, in rural areas, there is no private-school option.
Both school-choice supporters and opponents remain entrenched.
Supporters argue parents know what school setting is best for their children and deserve relief to offset the taxes that they pay that their private-school or homeschooled children do not use. Meanwhile, public-school advocates say it is unfair to bolster private schools when public schools are underfunded by $700 a student, according to state law.
This year could see a breakthrough on the almost decade-long school-choice debate, predicts Neil Mellen of South Carolinians for Responsible Government, an advocacy group pushing the legislation.
“It’s really hard to argue against more choices for low-income kids and special-needs kids. Studies show these programs really help them, and they’re very popular with parents,” said Mellen, who estimates about two dozen other states have some type of school choice or voucher program.
But Molly Spearman, director of the S.C. Association of School Administrators, said the bill will provide tax deductions to homeschooling families and private schools that may not be doing a good job of educating students.
The bill requires private schools to administer an unspecified nationally recognized standardized test.
But, said Spearman, “There are easy tests and stringent tests. We have a strong (standardized) test already here in South Carolina. Why should (private school students) not take that test and meet those same standards as our public schools? Particularly if we’re giving state tax credits and deductions? The least we can do is require a certain, basic standard.”