South Carolina has a new, temporary school choice law tucked within its recently passed state budget. The bill, H.3710, authorizes nonprofits to offer private K-12 scholarships to in-state students with special needs. Individuals and corporations that donate receive state tax credits in return.
Gov. Nikki Haley signed the bill on June 27, and its provisions are now in effect, according to House Education Committee staff.
The final House vote on the bill “was high drama—it passed by one vote,” said Rep. Robert Brown (D-Charleston), vice-chair of the Education and Public Works committee. “The large majority of Democrats voted against the bill because of that provision.”
Lawmakers included the provision in the state budget after years of similar, independent bills failing to pass.
Opportunities for Families
The tax credits are capped at $8 million. The program allocates each student up to $10,000 or the cost of private tuition, whichever is less, meaning about 800 students can participate. That number of students is less than those in the country’s largest special-needs scholarship, in Florida, where students receive an average of $6,900.
“This program helps about 0.1 percent of the students in South Carolina. It’s a very limited pilot,” says Jason Bedrick, a policy analyst for the Cato Institute.
The program expires after one year. Its scholarships can pay for public or private schools or other educational expenses.
“Next year we will see a bill coming out of the Senate to expand the program and make it permanent law,” Brown said, “now that the camel’s nose is under the tent.”
School choice advocates say it is a win-win for students and schools.
“What we know from more than 15 years’ experience with tax-credit scholarship programs nationwide is that the U.S. Supreme Court has declared them constitutional, they ease the burden on state and school budgets, and most important they expand options for students who desperately need them,” said Vicki Alger, a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum in Washington, DC. “Quite frankly, every child has special educational needs in one way or another, and all parents deserve the freedom to pick the schools they believe are best.”
Since 2014 is an election year for all statewide offices, including governor and education secretary, Brown says “you can bet this is going to be a campaign issue.”
Image by Nicole May.