Senate panel votes down school choice legislation

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COLUMBIA --- In a stunningly swift vote Wednesday, a Senate committee defeated the latest South Carolina proposal to help parents send their children to private school, but advocates say the bill is far from dead.

The bill failed 6-10 in the Senate Education Committee after brief remarks from its sponsor. Advocates and opponents -- many of them teachers on spring break -- filled the room, expecting lengthy debate, but there was none.

"Everybody knew what the bill contained and either opposed or supported it philosophically," said Senate Education Chairman John Courson, R-Columbia, one of four Republicans to vote against the measure.

Though the bill's eventual price tag of $133 million annually played into his decision, Courson said, it really came down to his belief that public, private and home schools should remain separate in kindergarten-through-12th-grade education.

The bill's main sponsor had a different take on the quick vote.

"The defenders of the status quo had the vote rigged before the meeting began," said Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Bonneau, who couched his bill as promoting the American ideals of freedom and liberty by giving parents greater ability to pick the school that's best for their child.

Opponents have long argued the state shouldn't re-direct public money to subsidize private schools that don't have to accept all students or abide by state and federal accountability laws.

The plan would give tax credits to parents who can afford to pay tuition upfront and provide scholarships to poor students. Businesses and people who donate toward those scholarships would get the tax credit.

The amount of tax credit or scholarship would vary by district, tied to half of whatever the state spends on a public school student there. Next school year, the statewide average would be $2,417. Parents of children already in private school could not get any tax break for several years, and then only a reduced amount.

Wednesday's meeting followed weeks of discussion in a Senate subcommittee, which took the rare move of advancing the bill to the committee without voting to support or oppose it.

The idea of using tax credits to help parents afford private tuition has died repeatedly in the Legislature since then-Gov. Mark Sanford rolled out the first version in 2004. It has also divided Republicans, as out-of-state money poured into campaign coffers in mudslinging primaries.

Advocates argued this year's re-tooled version addressed some previous criticisms and would save the state money. But an estimate by state budget advisers didn't support that.

Their 61-page report did show the state would save $2 million the first year. However, starting in the second year, revenue lost due to tax credits would increasingly exceed savings due to reduced payments to districts as public school populations declined. Revenue loss to the state would reach $133 million in 2023-24 when all students would be eligible, with the cumulative loss over the next 13 years of more than $800 million.

Grooms and other supporters discount the report as flawed, saying more students than estimated would transfer, resulting in higher savings.

But the director of a teachers' advocacy group applauded senators for recognizing the cost.

"We're just coming out of the recession," said Kathy Maness, of the Palmetto State Teachers Association. "It would just be a strain that hurts not only public education but all state agencies."

While the bill will not be revived this year in the Senate Education Committee, the fight will continue next week, as an identical bill comes up for debate in the House Education Committee.


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