South Carolina Considers School Choice Bill

Published June 1, 2009

South Carolina could become the latest state to implement a tax credit scholarship program allowing low-income children to attend the private school of their parents’ choice, if a bill introduced during the spring session becomes law.

State Sen. Robert Ford (D–Charleston) is sponsoring a bill to provide more school choice in the state. Senate Bill 520, the South Carolina Education Opportunity Act, would establish credits on personal state income taxes for education expenses and donations to groups granting scholarships to low-income children.

More than 100 people came to testify at an April 23 Senate K-12 Education Subcommittee hearing. Though only 40 were permitted to speak, twice as many spoke in support of the program than against. At a second subcommittee hearing on April 29, legislators gave the bill an unfavorable grade but sent it to the full committee for a future vote.

Political Pressure

Ford’s bill is the first school choice bill in South Carolina to be sponsored by a black Democrat. Three previous bills over the past four years were rejected amid claims choice would increase racial segregation in schools. Since introducing his bill in March, Ford has been under intense pressure from his colleagues in the Black Caucus, who say he’s been “brainwashed” by white Republicans.

“One thing I’ve noticed,” Ford said, “is elected officials do not send their kids to these failing public schools. They either send them to private schools or special public schools the poor students can’t get into.”

Help for All

Randy Page, executive director of Charleston-based South Carolinians for Responsible Government, explained Ford’s bill “assists low-income students by creating student scholarship organizations (SSOs) which provide scholarships to allow them to attend the private school of their choice. The SSOs are funded by tax credits given to individuals and businesses who donate to these organizations in order to enable scholarships for students across the state.”

The bill provides a tuition tax credit of about $2,433 for most students, $4,867 for those with special needs, and $3,650 for students attending failing public schools. It also allows homeschooling parents to receive credits on their income taxes.

“Senate Bill 520 is a first step to helping students escape failing public schools,” Ford said. “The dollars should follow the kids and be spent to educate them—not spent on things that have nothing to do with education.

“The traditional public school model is failing,” Ford continued. “The tax credit helps middle-income families, and the scholarships help the low-income families.”

Page agrees.

“Once this bill passes, students will have a plethora of choices at their disposal for their educational needs. They will no longer be tied to a particular school because of where they live or how much their parents may earn,” Page said.

Crying Out for Options

According to a March 27 poll conducted by SC Biz News, a local media company, more than 65 percent of Charleston Regional Business Journal readers favor some form of school choice—vouchers, tax credits, or both.

A poll of 1,000 black voters statewide taken by the Pulse Opinion Research Group in early April revealed 61 percent think Ford is looking out for poor kids by getting them out of failing public schools. Fifty-three percent said tax credits and scholarships would improve South Carolina’s graduation rate.

“It has been very helpful that we have bipartisan support on the school choice legislation this year,” Page said. “While education bureaucrats continue to denounce the bill, parents and students across the state understand how it helps them—as well as it helps to save money for the state—when parents are given full opportunity to pursue what’s best for their individual child.

“Fundamental reform takes time, and this is fundamental reform,” Page continued. “We’re pleased to have support from public school, private school, and homeschool parents. It is not a Democrat vs. Republican issue, nor is it a black vs. white issue. It’s a bureaucratic system vs. children issue. Either we are going to stand up for a system that is broken, or we are going to stand up for children in South Carolina.”

Sarah McIntosh ([email protected]) teaches constitutional law and American politics at Wichita State University in Kansas.

For more information …

South Carolina Senate Bill 520:

School Choice Poll:

Pulse Opinion Poll:
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