South Dakota Approves Tax-Credit Scholarship Program

Published May 10, 2016

South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard (R-SD) signed into law a bill giving low-income families financial aid to use on educational alternatives for their children.

Senate Bill 159, called the Partners in Education Tax Credit Program, will provide scholarships to parents to cover education-related expenses. They will be funded by money donated by insurance companies to a scholarship fund, and the companies will receive a tax credit worth 80 percent of the money donated in return. Only insurance companies required to pay the state’s premium and annuity tax are eligible to receive the tax credit.

The educational scholarships grant up to 82 percent of what the state allocates for a student in the public school system to eligible students who belong to a household with an income less than 150 percent of the amount that qualifies students for free or reduced-priced lunches.

SB 159 will provide a maximum of $2 million for students to use on private school education in the state.

‘Empowering Parents’

State Sen. Phyllis Heineman (R-Sioux Falls), SB 159’s primary sponsor, says the legislation is about putting power in parents’ hands.

“SB 159 is really about honoring parents’ ability to determine the best educational opportunity for their children, according to their values and the child’s needs,” Heineman said. “Empowering parents to make that decision makes them a truly engaged partner in their child’s education.”

Inspiring Public School Participation

Heineman says the tax-credit program and other similar initiatives give even public school personnel the opportunity to embrace education choice.

“It’s a new concept in South Dakota,” Heineman said. “It is our responsibility to make the program a success to ensure a favorable public opinion going into the future. We will need to highlight positive experiences from families from across the state who receive these tuition scholarships.

“Hopefully, more public school leaders will agree with one of their public school colleagues who stated, ‘I want the children to be in the classroom that their parents choose for them,'” said Heineman.

Challengers ‘Grasping at Straws’

Matt Frendeway, the national communications director for the Federation for Children, says teachers unions that have brought lawsuits to try to block students from exercising their right to school choice have failed historically.

“I can only hope they’ll recognize what’s best for students and respect any parent who exercises their right to school choice,” Frendeway said.

Heineman says she’s not concerned about opponents arguing SB 159 is unconstitutional.

“We are confident that this program is constitutional and opponents of parental choice are grasping at straws in an attempt to obstruct parents from exercising their right to school choice,” Heineman said.

Addressing a Nationwide Need

Frendeway says SB 159 addresses a serious need prevalent across the country.

“School choice exists nationwide, but in most states, it’s only available [to] those who have the means to move to a new home that’s zoned to a quality school or can afford to pay private school tuition,” Frendeway said. “This law and laws similar to South Dakota’s Partners in Education Tax Credit Program eliminate that financial barrier.

“Traditional public schools need to recognize why parents nationwide are exercising some sort of choice, whether it is in the form of opting to homeschool, virtual education, public charter schools, public school choice, or private school choice,” Frendeway said. “It’s because every child learns [differently] and the one-size-fits-all model of education is antiquated, and we need to provide every choice and every educational opportunity to every child.”

Andy Torbett ([email protected]writes from Atkinson, Maine.