A Senate subcommittee voted 6-4 to send the bill to the full Education Committee with a negative recommendation. The unusual move came after an attempt to delay the vote failed.
"I think everyone knows where they are on this issue. It would suit me fine to go to the full committee and resolve the issue once and for all," said Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Columbia, in moving for an unfavorable report.
Advocates said the vote shows they're making progress, though they doubt the bill will progress this year. Proponents will attempt to pass the measure on the floor through an amendment. Similar proposals have died repeatedly in the Legislature since 2004.
"We're in for the long haul. We're in for the grind," said Larry Marchant, chief lobbyist for private school choice advocates. "We will not give up."
Proponents say children should not be forced to attend failing schools, and the measure offers parents who otherwise can't afford private tuition a way out.
"What we're trying to do is help those parents who want their kids to get a good education, making $49-50,000 a year and spending $19,000 to educate their children," said Charleston Sen. Robert Ford, the main sponsor. Support from the prominent black Democrat offered a new twist to the debate this year.
"Those people are taxpayers and they deserve a break from us," he said. "We've got to do something to help those struggling parents."
His bill would allow parents to claim tax credits between roughly $2,400 and $4,900 per student to offset tuition costs. The highest credit would go to parents of disabled students.
Parents who homeschool their children could take a $1,000 tax credit.
Businesses and other taxpayers could claim credits for donating to groups that give scholarships to poor students, whose families earn up to 200 percent of the federal poverty limit â about $41,000 for a family of four.
The scholarship organizations can set their own criteria for doling out the funds, allowing them to raise money for specific groups, such as autistic children, Marchant said.
That means only residents who make enough money to claim tax credits are guaranteed the financial help, said Sen. John Matthews, D-Bowman.
The measure's cost or savings to taxpayers is a matter of debate.
According to a report paid for by Marchant's group, fewer students in classrooms means the state would save about $5.5 million in the first year, when the credit's available only for parents whose children currently attend public schools. The estimate does not analyze what happens when parents already paying private tuition are eligible, too.
A report by the state's Board of Economic Advisors, however, estimates the measure will cost taxpayers $16.7 million initially, then increase to nearly $128 million by the end of the five-year phase-in.
Sen. Luke Rankin said there were too many inconsistencies and outstanding questions to do anything with the bill.
"If this were a math test, I would fail it," said the Conway Republican. "It is folly to move this along."
A competing bill pushed by opponents of using taxpayer money for private education received unanimous approval Wednesday. It would require districts to expand options within public schools, including single gender, Montessori and arts-infused programs, and nature-based learning. Unlike a previous bill that died, it does not require letting students cross district lines.
Schools chief Jim Rex has said while some districts already offer an array of choices, other districts need the push.
"I do think some districts are moving at a quicker pace than others. We clearly see the appetite and interest and wild success" in Richland 2, Lourie said of his home district, where his two children attend single-gender and art-centered programs. "It keeps it all in the public framework of a public school system and ... opens doors to students across the state that many thought were not possible in years past."
When that bill reaches the Senate floor, Sen. Larry Grooms said he will attempt to attach the tax-credits-for-private-schools measure.
"We will have debates on how limited and open choice will be," said the Bonneau Republican.
Regardless, the private school bill is unlikely to pass this year. Proposals that cross over from one chamber to another after May 1 must receive two-thirds approval to pass.