Education

Exclusive: Plan provides private-school choice for most SC students

More than 70 percent of South Carolina’s 700,000 public-school students would qualify for the state’s private school-choice program if a state House-passed plan becomes law.

The program, maxed out at $8 million, has made it possible for 1,300 children with disabilities to receive private-school tuition grants so far.

However, weeks ago, the House passed a little-noticed provision in its version of next year’s state budget that expands the choice program to many more at-risk students, including children in poverty, which make up more than half of the state’s students.

The massive expansion to an estimated 500,000 eligible children was not intentional, said one House lawmaker who helped usher it into the budget.

The measure is highly unlikely to pass, say state senators, who are expected to revise the House plan as they add their priorities to the state budget.

Some senators do not want to expand the program at all. Instead, they want to focus on increasing oversight of the nonprofits — called scholarship organizations — that now raise millions of dollars to help special-needs children pay for private school.

Sen. Wes Hayes, R-York, said he does not support expanding the program this year, especially not to “virtually just about every student in the state.”

The state’s private-school choice program is up for reauthorization this year. In January 2014, the state began offering a tax credit to encourage donations to the program. The state allows taxpayers to claim up to $8 million in tax credits on a first-come, first-served basis.

A school-choice supporter, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Brian White, R-Anderson, said he would like to raise the cap to $20 million.

But White and other House budget writers said they were unaware that the version of the bill they passed could expand the program so much.

The House’s expansion – which did not raise the cap on tax credits – was intended to add children who are homeless or in foster care or in group homes, as well as the children of active-duty military, to the list of eligible students, said House Rep. Kenny Bingham, whose committee reviewed the plan.

The military children alone would make about 7,800 more students eligible, based on estimates from the S.C. Education Oversight Committee.

But, in expanding eligibility to students defined by state law as “at risk of school failure” and academically at risk, lawmakers – unwittingly, they say – agreed to open the program up to many more students.

Those categories include nearly 500,000 S.C. public-school children who are poor because they qualify for Medicaid or free or reduced-price lunch, education officials confirmed.

Bingham, R-Lexington, said he started hearing concerns that the expansion is too broad after it went through his budget panel and passed the House. Lawmakers, he added, “may need to tweak the definition.” He said: “It’s not intended to do anything more than to define other small categories that could be special needs.”

Reach Self at (803) 771-8658.

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