A school voucher plan that would allow South Carolina parents to use public school dollars allocated to their child for various private education expenses is expected to receive serious consideration by the Legislative Assembly this year.

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

The Senate Bill aims to provide opportunities for children whose needs are not 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,” said Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, R-Edgefield. “And we let these kids down if we don’t give them opportunities.”

Enrollment in the program would initially be capped and would be phased in over five years, by which time nearly half of South Carolina students would be eligible for scholarship accounts.

The plan differs from a traditional voucher program in that parents can use the money — about $7,000 per child per year — for various education expenses, not just private school tuition. . Eligible expenses include tutoring services, computers and technology, instructional materials, educational advisors, financial management of education accounts, and school transportation costs, among others.

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

Lawmakers have debated school vouchers in one form or another for about two decades, including a similar bill introduced by Massey in 2019 that was scuttled by the pandemic, but some say they think it could be the year when such legislation will finally arrive.

“I think there’s a very strong appetite in the Senate to embrace some form of expanded school choice,” said Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort. “You saw that was a theme throughout the pandemic. Parents wanting alternatives in case their existing public school is not open for in-person learning or they are unhappy with the virtual model in place.

The impact of the pandemic on schools and student learning has spurred parental demand for school choice and made education a priority issue for Republican politicians across the country, he said. he declares.

Massey agreed that interest in school choice has grown significantly in the age of COVID.

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

Voucher bill receives backlash from parents and educators

The initial hearing on the voucher bill drew a group of parents, teachers and public education advocates who condemned its potential impact on public schools, questioned its effectiveness and criticized its oversight private entities that would be the recipients of taxpayers’ money.

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

“Scholarship account vouchers are untested, unaccountable and unaffordable,” she said. “They are dangerous to our public school system here.”

Since every dollar transferred to a scholarship account is a dollar taken out of a public school, critics say the program would only exacerbate the problems plaguing public schools.

Marvin Byers, a retired administrator from Richland School District 1, said he fears a situation similar to what public schools faced during the Great Recession when teachers were laid off, curricula were cut and class sizes have increased.

“When funds are taken out of the public sphere, all programs are compromised,” he said. “Teachers are freed up and the ability of schools to meet the needs of all students is reduced.

Proponents of scholarship accounts play down their economic impact on public schools, arguing that funding losses are limited by the relatively small number of students who actually benefit.

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

In the event that all eligible students under South Carolina’s current proposal apply, however, the cost would be astronomical. A tax impact statement produced by the Office of Revenue and Fiscal Affairs estimates that scholarship funding could total nearly $3 billion within five years, once enrollment is no longer capped. This is roughly the equivalent of all state aid allocated to classrooms last year.

Despite the bill’s potentially significant impact on the state Department of Education’s budget, the agency would have only a limited role in the voucher program. Its main responsibility would be to ensure that students who receive vouchers are not enrolled in public schools.

The Department of Administration would actually manage the program, but could contract with private vendors to administer some or all aspects. The state would pay start-up costs and then deduct up to 4% of the scholarship money each year to cover the cost of running the program, estimated at about $2.3 million.

The Education Monitoring Committee would be responsible for monitoring 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 teaching K-12 and should have a way to measure and compare student academic achievement. realization.

Opponents of scholarship accounts argue that the oversight and accountability of these programs is suspect.

Critics have pointed to problems with the administration of Exceptional SC, South Carolina’s special needs school choice program, and problems other states have had with parents. make questionable expenses and misuse of public funds.

A analysis of the arizona voucher program found that relatively few students from low-performing districts benefited. More often, students in wealthy and successful districts used the vouchers to attend private schools.

There is also the question of whether students actually benefit 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 would not necessarily be the same as those taken by public school students.

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

“An (educated) consumer should be provided with adequate information to make an informed choice between two options,” he said. Yet, “it is almost impossible for anyone other than a test expert to draw meaningful comparisons between these datasets.”

Kelly said her organization strongly supports increasing school choice by investing in charter schools and expanding open enrollment in public schools, but has serious concerns about scholarship accounts.

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

For one thing, $7,000 vouchers wouldn’t be enough to cover tuition at many private schools, he said.

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

“It’s kind of embarrassing to tell a family at 200% of the poverty line that the state will give you a scholarship account so you can choose the best setting for your child, but when the family makes searches and chooses a private school, the school will not admit the child,” Kelly said.

Massey acknowledged that there are legitimate concerns about the bill that lawmakers are expected to address in the coming weeks and said fleshing out issues of eligibility, funding and accountability would be key, particular.

He said changes to the bill would definitely be needed in the future, but thinks lawmakers are determined to get across the finish line on a school choice bill this year.

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

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Zak Koeske is a political and government reporter for The State. Prior to joining The State in 2020, Zak covered education, government and policing issues in the Chicago area. He has also written for publications in his hometown of Pittsburgh and the New York/New Jersey area.

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