School choice (a.k.a. vouchers) are on the table

By Linda Hardman
Legislative Chair, DWGC

South Carolina lawmakers vowed that pushing through a school choice (vouchers) bill would be a top priority for the 125th Legislative Session, and they have been true to their word. S.39 was pre-filed in November of 2021 and in January of this year it was immediately referred to the Senate Committee on Education. After advancing from committee, it is currently being debated. Adding more leverage to their efforts is the newly elected state superintendent of education, Ellen Weaver, who touted vouchers, home schooling, and other choice policies in her campaign and received thousands of dollars in donations from school choice advocates. Weaver was previously the head of the conservative think tank Palmetto Promise Institute which promoted vouchers. She rejects the idea that money for school vouchers would be better invested in public schools and claims that there is already a lot of money in the public system but that it is not being well-spent.

What is a voucher? Vouchers, scholarships, savings accounts, and choice are terms that refer to programs to help families send their children to the private school of their choice by subsidizing tuition or other fees. Typically funded by tax dollars that otherwise would be sent to public schools, these programs allow families to send their children to private schools and have the cost partially or fully paid for by taxpayers. The proponents claim the policy gives parents more control over their children’s education and benefit students from low-income families or historically disadvantaged communities who otherwise might not be able to attend private schools. Critics argue participating families were often already sending their children to private schools and that these programs sap public schools’ resources and could make South Carolina’s school system more segregated. In 2018, 82% of South Carolina’s private school students were white, whereas white students made up 51% of public schools in the state in 2018.

As currently written, the bill would give families $6000 to pay for private tuition. To qualify, students would need to be eligible for Medicaid. The following is a sampling of private school annual tuition in the Charleston area. The question is with the $6000 school vouchers proposed by the South Carolina legislature, will low-income families even be able to afford the balance of the tuition? Clearly, the proposed voucher (or scholarships, savings accounts, or choice) programs would make private school tuition out of reach for most low-income (and many middle-income) families. The beneficiaries most likely will be students already in private schools from upper-income families! Charleston Day School: $19,000-Kindergarten, $25,800-grades 1-8.  Porter-Gaud: $24,000-Lower School (grades 1-4), $29,200-Middle, Upper School (grades 5-12).  First Baptist: $12,500 for one child, $12,200 for 2 children (grades 9-12).  Ashley Hall: $23,000-29,750 (K-5th grade), $30,000-32,000 (6th-12th grades).

If the voucher bill passes, it will likely be faced with legal opposition as the state constitution prohibits state funds from going to private schools. If their program does get stopped in court, Republican lawmakers may possibly pursue a constitutional amendment to remove the private school funding ban. House Speaker Murrell Smith (R), Sumter, has already filed legislation that would put that question on the ballot in November 2024. The state Supreme Court already blocked a similar attempt at a voucher program in October 2020 when Governor Henry McMaster tried to use federal COVID relief funds on vouchers to private schools.

Please register your opposition to this bill (S.39) that will potentially harm our state public education system by draining its resources and offer very little choice to financially disadvantaged families who wish to improve their children’s education by sending them to private schools. Find contact information for your legislators on the SC Legislature website.

Senator Greg Hembree (803) 212-6350 is the chairman of the Committee on Education. Members of the committee include: Senators Karl Allen, Richard Cash, Larry Grooms, Brad Hutto, Darrell Jackson, Dwight Loftis, Gerald Malloy, Shane Massey, Harvey Peeler, Luke Rankin, Rex Rice, John Scott, Nikki Setzler, Scott Talley, Ross Turner, and Tom Young.

The Freedom Caucus, South Carolina style

The United States House of Representatives was recently held hostage for four days by a rabble-rousing gaggle of power- and publicity-seeking ultra conservative Republicans, who refused to rubber-stamp Kevin McCarthy as speaker until he signed over his authority to them. After 15 rounds of voting, unheard of since the 1860s, McCarthy finally had enough votes after promising the MAGA squad of the Freedom Caucus major concessions like important appointments to influential committees such as the Rules Committee and the National Security Committee.

Think these shenanigans only happen on the national level?

On January 19, a very heated debate between the hard-right South Carolina Freedom Caucus and their Republican colleagues erupted on the South Carolina House floor in a strident yelling match over who is a legitimate member of the ruling Republican ranks. The House Republican Caucus steers the party’s policies in the chamber and had previously laid out their procedural rules which they expected all Republican members to sign onto. The House leadership even set deadlines for the rules to be signed or be ejected, but the Freedom Caucus members repeatedly ignored the deadlines. The South Carolina Freedom Caucus is comprised of 20 ultra-conservative, religious-right lawmakers who believe that deep-red South Carolina is too liberal and are hell-bent on changing that even if that means butting heads with the party’s leadership.

Lead by Rep. Adam Morgan (R) of Taylors as chair and R.J. May (R) of Lexington, vice chair, the Freedom Caucus is proposing amendments that would push the Republican agenda even further to the right on topics such as constitutional gun carry, abortion bans, vouchers for K-12 schools, taxes, electing judges, and other hot-button issues.

Although most of the Freedom Caucus amendments were tabled by overwhelming votes, their members are not deterred and are using the recent antics of the U.S Freedom Caucus as a blueprint for pushing their agenda. The 20 members of the S.C. Freedom Caucus can’t force or strike proposals on their own because House representatives already have an 88-36 super majority advantage over Democrats, but they can force roll call votes — public tallies displayed on screens and added to the permanent record-to pressure more Republicans to support their amendments. And they will continue their nuisance amendments, their grandstanding, and their adversarial stances to prove to their right-wing base that the current Republican House caucus and leadership is too moderate.

Be the change you want to see: Help the party with a much-needed donation or volunteer to help!