Can school choice survive the SC Senate?

jself@thestate.comApril 12, 2013 

  • School choice

    Last year: Four school choice bills were introduced during the last legislative session, including three in the S.C. House. One bill, H. 4894, passed the House, 62-38. The bill made it out of the Senate Finance Committee, but a minority report – opposing it – blocked the state Senate from voting on the proposal.

    This year: A special Senate committee is studying the issue, promising to make a report to the Senate Finance Committee by next January.

— Supporters of a $39 million Senate plan to give parents tax deductions for sending their children to private schools are hopeful that the proposal will advance this year.

Members of a Senate panel, including past critics of the proposal, pledged open minds Thursday as they review the bill, sponsored by Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Berkeley.

Critics have said the proposal would come at a high cost to taxpayers while taking away from the state’s public schools, which, they say, already are underfunded.

Grooms’ bill would provide tax credits for contributions made to charitable organizations that offer private school scholarships to low-income students or students with disabilities.

Grooms says he has pushed for school choice for a decade, seeing proposals pass the House but fail to reach the Senate floor for debate.

“Ten years of patience is wearing thin,” Grooms said Thursday at the panel’s first meeting.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, formed the panel, asking its members to ignore the charged political rhetoric that has marked the school choice issue.

State Sen. Wes Hayes, R-Rock Hill, a self-described advocate of school choice within public schools and chairman of the special panel, has opposed the private school choice proposal before. But Thursday, Hayes said the bill will “get a very thorough vetting” by his panel with a goal of sending it to the full Senate Finance Committee by January. Hayes said he is open to figuring out how to reach some consensus that would provide parents with another choice for educating their children.

The panel will hold several meetings around the state to hear from the public. It also plans to visit states with similar programs.

State Sen. Kevin Bryant, R-Anderson, who supports Grooms’ proposal, said his own persistence – trying to add the proposal to other tax credit bills without success – has “kept the issue hot.”

Bryant is hopeful that the Senate will review the plan with less trepidation than in previous sessions. If not, he said he would push the proposal by taking advantage of a Senate rule that allows members to block bills, holding up another tax credit bill to get movement on this one.

“You can get a tax credit for everything under the sun in South Carolina” but not for education, he said, adding opposition to the bill seems to have “cooled down.”

Tax benefits for parents

The bill would reduce families’ taxable income if they seek education options outside of the public schools in their area. If the bill becomes law, parents would receive tax deductions of:

• $2,000 for instruction-related expenses for home-schooled children

• $4,000 for tuition, textbooks, fees and transportation associated with sending students to a private school

• $1,000 if the child attends a public school in another district

It also would allow taxpayers who donate money for scholarships to claim tax credits equal to the amount of their donations to nonprofits that provide private school scholarships for poor children and students with significant cognitive, mental, physical or emotional disabilities.

The tax credit, available to donors on a first-come, first-served basis, could offset up to 60 percent of a taxpayer’s liability. The state would give no more than $25 million a year in tax credits for scholarship donations.

The bill calls for scholarships of up to $5,000 for children eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, a poverty indicator, or eligible for the federal Medicaid health plan for the poor. Students with disabilities could receive up to $10,000 in scholarships.

Concerned about proposal

The four-member Senate committee, Grooms noted, has three members who have opposed similar proposals in the past. “Some would argue that the committee is stacked from the beginning.”

But, he added, he thinks the panel’s members are sincere when they say they plan to keep an open mind and hear him out.

Still some panel members expressed concerns with Grooms’ proposal. While scholarships could help at-risk and low-income children seek better education opportunities, the proposal’s tax benefits likely would not help poor families, who sometimes have no tax liability, state Sen. John Matthews, D-Orangeburg, pointed out.

But state Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Richland, also on the panel, said while he has been an “outspoken” critic of private-school choice proposals, he is “more open-minded” about it than Grooms might think.

Lourie said his past concerns have centered on legislators who criticize public education, “but ... fail to take into consideration that we have not funded the public school system at the formula that we (the General Assembly) ... set forth.”

Every year, the state calculates the amount of money each school district should receive, considering its ability to raise money through taxes and the cost of educating different students. For years, the state has not committed enough money to meet the amount recommended, Lourie said.

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