The Lesser of Two Evils

By Linda Hardman
DWGC Legislative Chair

The Republican Party has long held that privatization of public schools, prisons, the U.S. Postal Service, and other government-run entities, would be more efficient and streamlined. The main goal, of course, is profit. 

Statistics show that private for-profit prisons have been an abysmal failure on many levels. A federally run postal service is authorized by the Constitution and created by an act of Congress. Because the Postal Service doesn’t generate enough revenue to cover its expenses, it  mostly operates in the red. It doesn’t help that the Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, appointed by Trump, has implemented changes to the  post office that have caused backlogs and delays, further putting the postal service in an unfavorable light. 

Libertarian-leaning politicos have long advocated for privatizing public schools, and right-wing conservative Republicans have taken up the cause nationwide with a religious fervor. Many advocates of privatization are convinced that private schools offer better academic outcomes than public schools. These claims are not supported by facts, however, as research shows that differences in academic success is largely based on family income level.

When schools across the country were forced to close because of the world-wide pandemic, many parents, faced with the disruption of their children’s education, questioned the validity of the shut-down decisions by school boards, the confusion wrought by remote learning, and the long-term effects of the lack of socialization on their children. Understandably, many were frustrated and angry. Fueled by wild rumors that their children were being taught objectionable ideas and force-fed information with which they fundamentally opposed, such as LGBTQ and racial materials, some parents became radicalized, hostile, and confrontational. Financially backed and supported by wealthy, dark-money entities, we have seen the rise to power of such groups as Moms for Liberty that have attempted to exert their influence on school curricula, initiated book bans, and gained seats on school boards across South Carolina.

Senate bill 285, allowing up to $55 million in tax credits to help parents pay for private K-12 tuition is making its way through the South Carolina Senate, potentially setting up two ways for families to use taxpayers’ money to help leave public schools. The bill, which the Senate Finance Committee approved 16-4 on February 21, offers an indirect way to help families afford private schools through tax-credit-funded scholarships. It was sent to the floor three weeks after the Senate approved a separate bill offering a direct route through vouchers. Opponents of the voucher bill feel that using tax credits is a much better way to achieve their goals since it won’t involve taking money out of the public treasury for private education. Instead, donors can get a tax credit for giving to a nonprofit that doles out scholarships, so the money is never collected by the state. Taxpayers who get the credit just pay less in tax liability. Democrats worry about ending up with both options-vouchers and tax credits-becoming law.

The author of the tax-credit bill, Sen. Tom Davis (R-Beaufort), believes his version guarantees that a private school choice program actually becomes reality. He supports vouchers, too, but doesn’t think they would survive a court challenge. He referred to the State Supreme Court’s 2020 unanimous decision that Gov. Henry McMaster violated the state’s constitutional ban against public money directly benefiting private schools when he tried to spend $32 million of federal COVID aid on k-12 private tuition vouchers.

Davis’s bill would greatly expand an existing tax-credit program for students with disabilities, which legislators approved in 2012. That program was never challenged but ultimately failed when oversight of the program was transferred to the State Department of Revenue. The program was not promoted and fell far short of the $12 million in total credits the state allows. For 2021, taxpayers claimed only $5.5 million in total credits. Davis’s bill would again allow nonprofits to collect donations and dole them out as scholarships but with stricter rules for eligibility, governing, and annual audits designed to prevent the problems that caused legislators to end the nonprofits’ role. The $55 million of total allowed credits would break down into four pots: $15 million each for poor students, children with disabilities, and any other student enrolled in public school; then $10 million for homeschoolers.

This year, the percentages would equate to students who qualify for Medicaid or to those who have been diagnosed with a special need qualifying them for scholarships of $9850 toward private tuition, tutoring, textbooks, and/or transportation. Other students who don’t fit those categories would qualify for $7040. Homeschooled students could get $1400 scholarships. Davis believes his bill does a better job than the voucher version of benefiting students who need it most.

The measure, approved by the Senate on January 31, starts out providing up to 5000 Medicaid-eligible children $6000 the first year. But once the law is fully phased in two years later, the number of participating students could rise to 15,000 and income eligibility would reach 400% of the federal poverty level ($130,000 for a family of four). Of South Carolina’s 750,000 students, K-12, 735,000 would receive no benefit from this program. The LWVSC notes that the bill offers no accountability provisions and allows private schools to reject students for a variety of reasons including disability, gender, religion, and academic aptitude. The House is expected to debate that bill in the coming weeks. In the meantime, the House will try to come up with their own voucher program that satisfies the constitutional requirements.

The House is also debating a resolution (H.3591) this week proposing another approach to privatization-a referendum asking voters in 2024 whether the prohibition against direct benefits to private or religious schools should be repealed. Senator Darrell Jackson (D-Hopkins) said he supports the tax-credit approach as the “lesser of two evils,”* while Senator Kevin Johnson (D-Manning) said he doesn’t accept the argument that the tax-credit approach doesn’t result in public taxes going to private schools. “It’s still a $55 million hit to me. You still don’t have access to that $55 million.”

As Dr. Janelle Rivers, Education Advocacy Specialist/Lobbyist with the LWVSC says, “Ultimately the question is whether our citizens and our lawmakers believe that free public education is a public good that is worthy of adequate support, both in terms of funding with state dollars and in terms of supervision and resources that could be provided through the South Carolina Department of Education.”

Sources: The Post and Courier; Dr. Janelle Rivers, LWVSC.

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