Millions of public SC dollars could flow to private schools if voucher bill succeeds

Tim Dominick/
·8 min read

A school voucher plan that would allow South Carolina parents to use the public school dollars allocated for their child on a variety of private educational expenses is expected to receive serious consideration in the Legislature this year.

The controversial proposal, which would take money earmarked for K-12 public schools and transfer it into education scholarship accounts that parents of low-income and special needs students could access to pay for private educational costs, was the focus of a Senate Education panel last week and is scheduled for another hearing Wednesday.

The Senate bill is intended to provide opportunities for children whose needs are not being met by public schools, but whose parents cannot afford private education options.

“You have poor kids who are stuck in perpetually failing schools with no way out,” Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, said. “And we are failing those children if we don’t give them opportunities.”

Enrollment in the program would be capped initially and set to expand gradually over the course of five years, at which point nearly half of South Carolina students would be eligible for education scholarship accounts.

The plan differs from a traditional voucher program in that parents can use the money — about $7,000 per child per year — on a variety of educational expenses, not just private school tuition. Allowable expenses include tutoring services, computers and technology, instructional material, educational consultants, financial management of education accounts and school transportation fees, among others.

The House has a nearly identical proposal that House Majority Leader Gary Simrill, R-York, said would be a priority in 2022. He told The State the lower chamber’s proposal, which has yet to get a hearing, will be designed as a pilot program.

Lawmakers have debated school vouchers in one form or another for roughly two decades, including a similar bill Massey introduced in 2019 that was scuttled by the pandemic, but some say they think this could be the year such legislation finally comes to pass.

“I think there is a very strong appetite in the Senate for enacting some form of expanded school choice,” state Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, said. “You’ve seen that be a theme throughout the pandemic. Parents wanting alternatives in the event that their existing public school wasn’t open for in-person learning or if they weren’t happy with the virtual model put in place.”

The pandemic’s impact on schools and student learning has spurred parental demand for school choice and turned education into a front-burner issue for Republican politicians across the country, he said.

Massey agreed that interest in school choice has grown considerably in the COVID-era.

“On one hand you’ve got parents who are frustrated by the lack of opportunities or the lack of even in-person schooling. And on the other hand you’ve got parents who are frustrated by schools not providing the protections that they thought the children needed to have,” he said. “What those parents have in common is they want a different alternative.”

Voucher bill gets backlash from parents, educators

The initial hearing on the voucher bill attracted a cadre of parents, teachers and public education advocates who condemned its potential impact on public schools, questioned its efficacy and criticized its oversight of the private entities that would be the beneficiaries of public tax dollars.

Colleen O’Connell, a former middle school teacher who now works for the South Carolina Education Association, testified that funding the private education of some students through scholarship accounts would harm the majority of students who continue to attend public schools.

“Education scholarship account vouchers are untested, unaccountable and unaffordable,” she said. “They’re dangerous for our public school system here.”

Since every dollar transferred into a scholarship account is one taken away from a public school, critics argue the program would only exacerbate the problems plaguing public schools.

Marvin Byers, a retired Richland 1 school district administrator, said he feared a situation similar to what public schools faced during the Great Recession when teachers were let go, programs were cut and class sizes increased.

“When funds are removed from the public sphere, all the programs are jeopardized,” he said. “Teachers are released and the schools’ ability to meet the needs of all students is reduced.”

Proponents of scholarship accounts downplay their economic impact on public schools, arguing that funding losses are limited by the relatively small number of students who actually take advantage of them.

In larger states with well-established education scholarship account programs, like Arizona or Florida, only a small fraction of students apply, they say.

In the event that all students eligible under South Carolina’s current proposal did apply, however, the cost would be astronomical. A fiscal impact statement produced by the revenue and fiscal affairs office estimates that scholarship funding could total nearly $3 billion within five years, once enrollment is no longer capped. That’s roughly equivalent to all of the state aid allocated to classrooms this past year.

Despite the bill’s potentially significant impact on the state education department’s budget, the agency would have only a limited role in the voucher program. It’s primary responsibility would be to ensure students who receive vouchers are not enrolled in public schools.

The Department of Administration would actually run the program, but could contract with private vendors to administer some or all aspects of it. The state would pay startup costs and then deduct up to 4% of the education scholarship money annually to cover the program’s operating costs, estimated at about $2.3 million.

The Education Oversight Committee would be tasked with vetting education service providers, collecting data on the program and reviewing its progress every five years.

State Superintendent Molly Spearman said she believes the state should play a role in facilitating school choice, but stressed that any voucher program should be administered by an entity with experience and knowledge in K-12 education and should have a means of measuring and comparing student academic achievement.

Opponents of scholarship accounts contend that the oversight and accountability of such programs is suspect.

Detractors pointed to problems with the management of Exceptional SC, South Carolina’s special needs school choice program, and issues other states have run into with parents making questionable expenditures and misusing public dollars.

An analysis of Arizona’s voucher program found that relatively few students in low-performing districts took advantage of it. More often, students in wealthy, high-performing districts used the vouchers to attend private schools.

There’s also the question of whether students are actually benefiting from the private educational services they purchase with vouchers. The proposal being discussed would require students who receive vouchers to take annual assessments to track their academic progress, but those assessments wouldn’t necessarily be the same ones public school students take.

When voucher recipients don’t take the same standardized tests as public school students, it becomes difficult to compare achievement and assess whether programs really are working, said Patrick Kelly, director of government affairs for the Palmetto State Teachers Association.

“An (education) consumer should be provided with adequate information to make an informed choice between two options,” he said. Yet, “it’s almost impossible for anyone but a testing expert to draw meaningful comparisons between these sets of data.”

Kelly said his organization strongly supports increasing school choice through investment in charter schools and expanding open enrollment across public schools, but has grave concerns about education scholarship accounts.

He said any school choice proposal must be fully affordable, accessible to all students and adequately accountable to the state. The proposed education scholarship account bill fails on all three measures, Kelly said.

For one, $7,000 vouchers would not be sufficient to cover the tuition at many private schools, he said.

Furthermore, because private schools can deny admission to students for any reason other than race, color or national origin, voucher recipients could still be denied services due to their gender, religion, sexual orientation, disability status, academic aptitude or literally any other reason.

“It’s a little awkward to tell a family at 200% of the poverty level that the state will give you an education scholarship account so you can choose the best setting for your child, but when the family does the research and chooses a private school the school won’t admit the child,” Kelly said.

Massey acknowledged there were legitimate concerns with the bill that lawmakers would have to address in the weeks ahead and said it would be critical to flesh out issues of eligibility, funding and accountability, in particular.

He said there would definitely need to be modifications made to the bill going forward, but believes lawmakers are committed to getting a school choice bill across the finish line this year.

“The difficulty is how do you make it work. How do you get enough buy in from different sides that people feel like, hey, this is something that could really help children, but at the same time not be a detriment elsewhere?” Massey said. “I think we have that opportunity. It’s gonna take some work, but I think we can get there.”

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