COLUMBIA — A bill that would allow children to attend the public school of their choice regardless of where they live passed a state Senate committee Wednesday.
The bill, sponsored by state Sen. Wes Hayes, R-Rock Hill, would create a statewide open-enrollment program, allowing students to apply to go to schools in districts other than where they live without paying tuition.
The state would conduct a pilot program during the 2013-2014 school year among districts that volunteer to participate. Districts statewide would start providing some open-enrollment options for elementary, middle and high school students in the 2014-15 school year.
The Senate Education Committees approval sends the bill to the Senate floor.
The program, Hayes said, would provide more choice in public schools, including for at-risk and low-income students.
Questions over how to pay for the program have stalled the proposal for years.
A similar proposal died in the Senate last year. In 2007, a proposal passed the House and Senate, but Gov. Mark Sanford vetoed it, saying districts that choose to raise and spend more money on schools than the state provides would not have a way to make up any additional costs.
Under Hayes proposal, local tax dollars that a school district raises for education would remain in that district. But state education money, paid out on a per-student basis, would follow any student transferring to a new school district. Federal support that schools receive based on enrollment also would follow students.
State education Superintendent Mick Zais has said local tax dollars that go toward education also should follow the student something the bill does not accomplish, his spokesman Jay Ragley said.
Zais also wants to eliminate the 3 percent cap on the students who can take part in the program. The cap would limit participation to 21,370 students statewide, based on enrollment for the 2012-13 school year, according to an impact study of the bill.
The bill also would result in about $4 million in personnel costs to the states school districts, based on the assumption each district would hire one person to manage the open-enrollment program.
Scott Price, an attorney with the S.C. School Boards Association, said the group supports the proposal. But, he added, questions remain about how transportation of students between districts will be handled.
Low-income students, those whose families live at or below 185 percent of the federal poverty level, would be eligible for transportation through their district or reimbursement for their transportation costs paid for with money set aside by the General Assembly. No estimates of transportation costs was available.
The Education Committee also adopted changes, proposed by state Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, to give priority to students participating in the open-enrollment program, if one is started, over home school or private school students interested in attending public schools.