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S.C. bill drops exemption to school attendance zones

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COLUMBIA — Parents could no longer buy a small plot to send their child to a certain school under a bill advanced Wednesday by a House panel.

The bill sent to the full Education Committee on a 5-3 vote would delete a civil-rights-era exemption to school attendance zones that allows children to enroll in any district where they own property with an assessed value of at least $300. Since 1962, that has allowed parents to buy a sliver of land in their child’s name to attend their preferred school.

Advocates say that’s unfair, particularly if it means denying a coveted spot to a local student. Opponents say parents should have more school choices, not fewer.

“Why are we making it difficult for parents who choose to put their child in a better school?” said Rep. Samuel Rivers, R-Goose Creek. “It’s limiting the choices of parents who care for their child – parents who get up early in the morning to drive to those schools. ... I believe we should broaden it.”

But Democrats on the subcommittee argued the exemption represents a choice only for parents with means to buy the property and work the system.

The bill as advanced grandfathers in students who already use the exemption.

The proposal follows a state Supreme Court ruling last December that upheld the ability of a student who lived in Berkeley County to attend Academic Magnet High School in neighboring Charleston County. Admittance at the nationally recognized school is based on test scores, and slots are limited.

District officials argued only students from Charleston County could compete for enrollment at a county-wide magnet school. But the state’s high court agreed with a parent who appealed the school board’s 2010 decision, saying the $300-property law gave the student the same access as county residents.

“This is fundamentally a fairness issue,” the district’s attorney, John Emerson, said Wednesday. “Is it a big fiscal impact? No. Is it a fairness issue? Yes. It’s the wrong way to implement school choice.”

In Charleston County, a plot with an assessed value of $300 is worth about $6,500.

“The taxes paid on property that size come nowhere near the cost of educating that child,” Emerson said.

While the issue arises from the coastal county, the exemption’s used across the state. However, no one tracks the extent.

Emerson said a hand-audit prompted by the Academic Magnet case found roughly 150 cases in Charleston County, which has a student population of more than 42,000.

Superintendent Mick Zais is among the bill’s opponents. He’d support it only if the Legislature replaced the exemption with a law broadening parents’ abilities to pick the school of their choice, said his spokesman Jay Ragley.

School choice is a prickly issue in South Carolina. Proposals using tax credits to help parents pay for private school tuition have failed repeatedly over the last decade, with opponents arguing the state shouldn’t subsidize private and home schools.


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