More than 4,000 people gathered at the South Carolina State Capitol in Columbia on February 13 to show their support for a unique school choice bill pending in the legislature.
The 2007 South Carolina Educational Opportunity Scholarship Act, sponsored in the state House by Rep. Tracy Edge (R-Myrtle Beach) and in the Senate by Sen. Larry Grooms (R-Bonneau), combines two approaches that have been effective in other states: vouchers and tax credits.
Rally speakers included Gov. Mark Sanford (R), Lt. Gov. André Bauer (R), Senate President Pro Tempore Glenn McConnell (R-Charleston), and 14-year-old Rontrell Matthews–a ninth-grader who got a job at a local sandwich shop to pay his own tuition at a private school after his public school gave up on him.
The proposed vouchers–known as Educational Opportunity Scholarships, worth up to $4,500 apiece–would be distributed to children from low-income households zoned to attend a school rated as failing by the state Education Oversight Committee, as well as all special-needs students.
Educational Opportunity Tuition Tax Credits worth $1,000 per child would be available to all parents to send their child to the private school of their choice, and a $500 credit per child would be available for those who choose homeschooling.
The Senate version also establishes individual and corporate tax credits for all contributions made to the Rural School Infrastructure Bank, a fund used to provide grants to failing schools.
“The combination allows us to help the broadest number of children in South Carolina have school choice,” explained Randy Page, president of South Carolinians for Responsible Government, the group that sponsored the rally. “I think we looked at the successes of Milwaukee, Arizona, Pennsylvania, and Cleveland, and just tried to pick the best of all worlds.”
Cleveland and Milwaukee operate citywide voucher programs for low-income students in failing schools, and Arizona and Pennsylvania offer tuition tax credit programs.
The hybrid bill is only one type of school choice plan currently pending in South Carolina. On February 7, newly elected state Superintendent of Education Jim Rex announced he would like to phase in statewide open enrollment over the next three years. At press time Grooms said a bill proposing that plan could come up for a vote by late March.
But Rex’s plan is not enough, Grooms said.
“Under his plan, if you’re in a failing school, you would have the opportunity to attend another failing school,” Grooms said.
Rep. Carl Gullick (R-Fort Mill) isn’t convinced there’s enough accountability in the Edge/Grooms plan.
“We have to do away with the assumption that kids in private schools get a better education. We don’t necessarily know that,” Gullick said.
As a parent who has sent his children to private schools, he’s seen some bad ones, Grooms said–but he admitted there’s no evidence showing South Carolina’s private schools educate students more poorly than its public schools. According to a state-by-state comparison released by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce on February 28, the state earned a D on academic achievement–about 36th in the nation.
Grooms said while there are no strings attached to the tax credits in the bill, private schools accepting vouchers will be required to report nationally accepted standardized test scores to the state.
The bill is similar to legislation offered in 2005, which failed to pass in the House by seven votes. This year, Page said, the House version has 42 sponsors of 124 House members, and 13 of 46 in the Senate.
Karla Dial ([email protected]) is managing editor of School Reform News.
For more information …
2007 South Carolina Educational Opportunities Act, http://www.scstatehouse.net/sess117_2007-2008/bills/457.htm
“Leaders and Laggards,” U.S. Chamber of Commerce, February 28, 2007, http://www.uschamber.com/icw/reportcard/default