For the first time since efforts started in 2004, a “school-choice” bill has passed the S.C. House.
The 65-49 vote Wednesday is a victory for choice advocates, who say the change would benefit families who want to educate their children as they see fit – in a private school or at home – and deserve a tax deduction.
“Parents have spoken out enough to make lawmakers understand that they deserve choices,” said state Rep. Eric Bedingfield, R-Greenville, a lead sponsor of the bill. “Education is not a one-size-fits-all proposition. Each child is educationally unique in how they learn.”
Opponents charged the vote had been bought by New York millionaire Howard Rich who has spent at least $2 million over the last decade, supporting school-choice advocates and trying to defeat opponents.
While significant, the House victory does not mean the proposed legislation is likely to become law. After one more procedural House vote, the bill heads to the state Senate. There, however, it faces an uphill battle.
Many senators support public schools because their suburban districts have good school systems or, in rural areas, there is no private-school option. Senate rules also make it easier for one senator to halt legislation, and, while the GOP controls the Senate, a coalition of Democrats and moderate Republicans easily could block the measure.
The proposal has been part of the Republican agenda since first advocated by then-Gov. Mark Sanford in 2004. Republicans, who control the Legislature, largely support the idea, while Democrats largely oppose it. Last year’s school-choice proposal was defeated narrowly, 61-59, in the House.
Wednesday’s vote was a defeat for public school advocates who say the proposal would result in less money for public schools that already are not fully funded. They also worry private schools and homeschooling families – not scrutinized by the state, unlike public schools – are not held accountable for the educations that they provide.
“This isn’t going to do anything to improve our public education in this state,” said Molly Spearman, director of the S.C. Association of School Administrators. “At a time when we can’t fulfill our state funding requirement for public schools, we’re diverting resources to places where there is no accountability, where we aren’t sure the type of education students will receive.”
The newly passed bill provides tax deductions for two groups and tax credits for others.
• Up to a $4,000-a-year tax deduction for each child enrolled in private schools.
• Up to a $2,000 deduction for expenses for families who home-school their children.
• Poor and disabled students would be eligible for private-school scholarships, and those who donate to nonprofits that would provide those scholarships could claim tax credits.
The change is an expensive one, opponents say. If passed, it would cost the state about $37 million in lost state revenue in 2012-13.
One large sticking point during Wednesday’s debate was whether tax deductions and tax credits are “state money” and, therefore, should come with strings attached – such as requiring participating homeschooled students and private school students to take the state’s standardized test or requiring participating private schools to accept disabled students as public schools must do.
One of several unsuccessful amendments, sponsored by state Rep. Doug Brannon, R-Spartanburg, would have required scholarship-granting nonprofits to undergo audits and show the results to the state. “If they’re going to take state money, they ought to tell us how they spend it,” Brannon said.
But opponents argued tax credits are not state money.
“It is not state money because the state doesn’t have money. It’s taxpayer money,” said state Rep. Bill Herbkersman, R-Beaufort, adding churches and other nonprofits get tax breaks without being subjected to annual state audits and other requirements.
The S.C. School Administrators Association, which opposes the bill, said the vote represents a win for Rich, who, through his companies and friends, has spent at least $2 million to influence state House races since 2006, according to the association.
That money went to the campaigns of state House candidates friendly to the school-choice agenda as well as efforts to defeat or convert lawmakers who opposed past choice bills, including six Republican members of the Spartanburg County delegation who opposed the bill last year.
“Finally, finally, Mr. Rich has won,” said state Rep. Joseph Jefferson, D-Berkeley. “A New Yorker has won because he has sent enough money down here to convince you that what you have done today is the right thing.”
South Carolinians for Responsible Government, a school-choice advocacy group, counters by saying Rich isn’t the only one who has tried to influence the Legislature. Public school superintendents and principals routinely send emails to teachers, giving incorrect information about school-choice legislation and encouraging them to contact their lawmakers to urge them to oppose the bills, the group says.