Legislation making its way through the South Carolina General Assembly would establish the Education Scholarship Trust Fund, an education savings account (ESA) program open to low-income Palmetto State children.
These accounts would cover tuition, fees, and curricula for eligible children at private and parochial schools, as well as tutoring services, transportation costs, textbooks, supplemental course materials, supplemental technological devices, and educational therapies. Funds could also be used to cover the fees required to take national standardized achievement tests, such as the SAT or ACT, or AP examinations.
The program would begin with the 2024–25 school year and would be open to children whose family income does not exceed 200 percent of the federal poverty level. This would bump up to children in families with household incomes at 300 percent of the federal poverty level in 2025–26, and families with household incomes at 400 percent of the federal poverty level in 2026–27. The maximum number of children who will be given scholarships will be 5,000 in 2024–25, jumping up to 10,000 children in 2025–26, and maxing out at 15,000 children in 2026–27 and in each subsequent school year.
The legislation has already passed the South Carolina Senate.
Copious empirical research on school choice programs such as ESAs makes clear these programs offer families improved access to high-quality schools that meet their children’s unique needs and circumstances, and that these programs improve academic performance and attainment and deliver a quality education at lower cost than traditional public schools.
To cite just one example, a 2022 analysis by EdChoice examined South Carolina’s Educational Credit for Exceptional Needs Children Fund, a tax-credit scholarship program for students with special needs, as and found the program has saved Palmetto State taxpayers between $62.0 million and $99.8 million through Fiscal Year 2018. This works out to a savings of between $7,823 and $12,583 per student participating in the program. Because of the age of the program, the report notes that the “fiscal effects are likely closer to the upper bound estimate.”
Additionally, education choice benefits public school students and taxpayers by increasing competition, decreasing segregation, and improving civic values and practices. Research also shows students at private schools are less likely than their public school peers to experience problems such as alcohol abuse, bullying, drug use, fighting, gang activity, racial tension, theft, vandalism, and weapon-based threats. There is also a strong causal link suggesting private school choice programs improve the mental health of participating students.
Further, South Carolina’s public schools are habitually failing the state’s children. In 2022, only 34 percent of public school fourth-graders and 22 percent of eighth-graders tested “proficient” to grade level in mathematics on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) examination, colloquially known as the “Nation’s Report Card.” Just 32 percent of fourth-graders and 27 percent of eighth-graders tested “proficient” in reading. Essentially, and embarrassingly, the state’s public schools are failing to educate roughly 7 out of 10 South Carolina children to grade-level proficiency in reading and math.
It is probably these dismal results, and also because teacher unions have repeatedly played politics with school closings during the COVID-19 pandemic in direct conflict with students’ best interests, that education choice programs like ESAs are more popular with parents than ever before. Polling by EdChoice released in December 2022 found 72 percent support for ESA programs, for example, among the general public and 77 percent among current school parents. These findings are mirrored in the American Federation for Children’s eighth-annual National School Choice Poll, released in March 2022, which found 77 percent support for ESA programs.
A February 2018 survey of South Carolina private schools by EdChoice found these schools potentially have 20,000 open seats available across grades K–12, and 64 percent of the schools surveyed said they would likely participate in a universal ESA program, while 58 percent said they would be willing to participate in the Equal Opportunity Education Scholarship Account program. Only 5 percent of schools said they would not participate in an ESA program. However, there is still large room for growth in the number of schools that would participate in an ESA program, as just over half responded they were “not familiar” or “not too familiar” with ESAs.
The goal of public education in South Carolina today and in the years to come should be to allow all parents to choose which schools their children attend, require every school to compete for every student who walks through its doors, and make sure every child has the opportunity to attend a quality school. There has not been a time when providing these opportunities has been more urgent and more needed than right now. Legislators should recognize that and allow families as many options as possible to get their children the education they need and deserve.
The following documents provide more information about ESAs and education choice.
Fiscal Effects of School Choice
This EdChoice analysis of 40 private educational choice programs in 19 states plus D.C. summarizes the facts and evidence on the fiscal effects of educational choice programs across the United States and finds they have provided up to $28.3 billion in net fiscal savings to state and local taxpayers through Fiscal Year 2018. The programs in the analysis include three education savings accounts programs (ESAs), 19 school voucher programs, and 18 tax-credit scholarship programs.
Exploring South Carolina’s Private Education Sector
This is the ninth entry in EdChoice’s School Survey Series. This brief synthesizes information about South Carolina’s private schools from a survey conducted by EdChoice. The survey looks at South Carolina private schools’ open seats, tuition and fees, regulatory concerns, and interest in school choice programs.
The 123s of School Choice (2020 Edition)
This report from EdChoice is an in-depth review of the available research on private school choice programs in America. Areas of study include: private school choice program participant test scores, program participant attainment, parent satisfaction, public school students’ test scores, civic values and practices, racial/ethnic integration and fiscal effects.
A Win-Win Solution: The Empirical Evidence on School Choice (Fourth Edition)
This paper by EdChoice details how a vast body of research shows educational choice programs improve academic outcomes for students and schools, saves taxpayers money, reduces segregation in schools, and improves students’ civic values. This edition brings together a total of 100 empirical studies examining these essential questions in one comprehensive report.
The Public Benefit of Private Schooling: Test Scores Rise When There Is More of It
This Policy Analysis from the Cato Institute examines the effect increased access to private schooling has had on international student test scores in 52 countries. The Cato researchers found that a 1 percentage point increase in the share of private school enrollment would lead to moderate increases in students’ math, reading, and science achievement.
The Effects of School Choice on Mental Health
This study from Corey DeAngelis at the Cato Institute and Angela K. Dills of Western Carolina University empirically examines the relationship between school choice and mental health. It finds that states adopting broad-based voucher programs and charter schools witness declines in adolescent suicides and suggests that private schooling reduces the number of times individuals are seen for mental health issues.
Child Safety Accounts: Protecting Our Children through Parental Freedom
In this Heartland Policy Brief, Vicki Alger, senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum and research fellow at the Independent Institute, and Heartland Policy Analyst Tim Benson detail the prevalence of bullying, harassment, and assault taking place in America’s public schools and the difficulties for parents in having their child moved from a school that is unsafe for them. Alger and Benson propose a Child Safety Account program, which would allow parents to immediately have their child moved to a safe school – private, parochial, or public – as soon as parents feel the public school their child is currently attending is too dangerous to their child’s physical or emotional health.
Nothing in this Research & Commentary is intended to influence the passage of legislation, and it does not necessarily represent the views of The Heartland Institute. For further information on this subject, visit School Reform News, The Heartland Institute’s website, and PolicyBot, Heartland’s free online research database.
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