South Carolina House Introduces Bill to Expand Course Options for Public School Students

Published June 2, 2016

A South Carolina bill to expand public school students’ access to credit-bearing courses from public schools, colleges, nonprofit organizations, employers, and other course providers was introduced in the House on April 14, 2016. The bill failed to progress to the Senate in time to meet the crossover deadline of May 1 for the current legislative session.

State Rep. Todd Atwater (R-Lexington) introduced House Bill 5216, the South Carolina Course Access Act. The bill was referred to the House Committee on Education and Public Works on April 14, 2016, but the state Department of Education opposed the bill in its current form.

The Course Access Act is designed to provide students state funding and full class credit for completing state-approved courses which are offered by a number of course providers in a variety of formats.

‘Allow Everybody Access’

Atwater says his inspiration for HB 5216 came from personal experience.

“As a professional, I have a law degree, I have a couple of insurance licenses, that kind of thing, and a lot of what I get in my continuing education is online,” Atwater said. “I have a lot of very close colleagues and friends who either run manufacturing or [businesses], and a lot of what they do in their training is online. So I said, this is the twenty-first century, and we’re still brick and mortar in our primary and secondary education system. [The students] should at least be exposed to [online education].”

Atwater has a fifteen-year-old son who uses online tools such as Google and YouTube to learn, he says.

“Kids are learning in this manner,” Atwater said. “The idea is a large leap forward into the twenty-first century. It’s what people are doing in business. Why not follow that model? And let kids learn how they learn, as opposed to dictating what box they have to learn within.

“We’re trying to give kids access to courses they couldn’t get otherwise,” said Atwater. “And the best teachers. There are a lot of kids who would say, ‘I’d love to have that teacher, that chemistry teacher or that math teacher or that English teacher, and I live in the wrong district.’ Why not put them online and allow everybody access to the course?”

‘It’s Pretty Bleak’

Barton Swaim, communications director for the South Carolina Policy Council, says even if the bill had met the crossover deadline, it probably wouldn’t have gone anywhere.

“South Carolina is not a friendly place for school reforms, not real ones,” Swaim said. “We have this reputation as a red state, conservative and all this. Some of that’s true at the cultural level, but in the state House, despite R’s after everyone’s name, it’s not friendly to what we think of as conservative policies or reforms.”

Swaim says other attempts have been made to expand school choice, but in the end the legislature has “done virtually nothing.”  

“The school districts themselves are very powerful,” Swaim said. “The teachers union here is very powerful. There’s usually not a big knock-down, drag-out fight over choice anymore. The best that they’ve done is a budget proviso that provides some kind of credit for special needs students to go to the school of their choice. It’s not even a very big credit. And that’s it. That’s school choice in South Carolina. It’s pretty bleak.”

Swaim, too, speaks from experience.

“My daughter is in a public school, and an adjacent public school offers Chinese,” Swaim said. “And she would love to do that, and we asked, of course, to have her be able to go to that school so she could take Chinese, and it was out of the question. No way they’re going to do it. Something like this would allow her to do that and still go to her present school. But the districts themselves are enormously powerful, and they don’t like to be messed with.”

‘Start That Dialogue Now’

Atwater says he introduced the Course Access Act at the end of this year’s session in order to get the ball rolling on a compromise. 

“We want to call out those who have problems with [the bill],” Atwater said. “[Those who] don’t like it in its current form, let’s vet it out. So we introduced it so we could have this dialogue so when we return in January, we’ll be closer to passage than we would be if we just did it in January. Start that dialogue now.”

Michael McGrady ([email protected]) writes from Colorado Springs, Colorado.