SC Senate to take up controversial school-choice proposal

abeam@thestate.comMay 16, 2013 

— The S.C. Senate is poised to vote on a controversial school-choice proposal next week that the upper house’s leader says “could be very close.”

The vote will come on an amendment to the state’s budget, which senators have been debating all week.

School-choice supporters tried twice Thursday to force a vote on the proposal. But opponents blocked them because three reliable “no” votes – state Sens. William O’Dell, R-Abbeville; Yancey McGill, D-Williamsburg; and Clementa Pinckney, D-Jasper – were absent.

The proposal would give parents tax deductions of up to:

•  $4,000 a year for tuition paid to send their children to private schools.

•  $2,000 a year if their children are homeschooled.

•  $1,000 a year if their children attend a public school that they are not zoned for.

Contributions to private school scholarship funds also would qualify for tax credits.

State economists have estimated a similar proposal in a separate bill would reduce state revenues by about $39 million a year, money opponents say should go toward public education.

The issue deeply divides the Senate Republican Caucus. While the GOP is a majority in the Senate, moderate Republicans have joined with Democrats in the past to kill school-choice proposals.

However, this school-choice vote would be the first for the Senate’s 10 freshmen, giving supporters hope. For example, state Sen. Katrina Shealy, R-Lexington, a school-choice supporter, replaced former Sen. Jake Knotts, a longtime foe of school choice.

Senate President Pro Tempore John Courson, R-Richland, said the vote “could be very close.”

Not expected to pass

But supporters, including Sens. Lee Bright, R-Spartanburg, and Larry Grooms, R-Berkeley, said they expect the proposal to fail. Still, they said the vote will be significant because the House passed a school-choice bill last year for the first time.

“There are so many folks around this state that want school choice and ... they think, we’ve got a Republican governor, we’ve got a Republican House, we’ve got a Republican Senate, that’s a Republican platform issue, but yet we can’t get it passed,’ ” Bright said. “They wonder why, and ... we can show them why.”

Opponents say the state underfunds public education and cannot afford to divert state revenues to private schools.

Senate Minority Leader Nikki Setzler, D-Lexington, said in the budget year that starts July 1 the state plans to spend $2,101 per student, $670 less than state law calls for. “We have a constitutional mandate to provide a free public education for every student in this state, and we’re not even meeting what is required now.”

School choice is just one of several issues that Senate Democrats are angry about concerning the state budget.

Another is Republicans’ refusal to expand Medicaid, the joint federal-state health insurance program for the poor and disabled. Democrats plan to introduce a budget amendment to expand Medicaid but are likely to lose the fight.

Other budget wins

Still, Senate Democrats have other budget wins to crow about, including the Senate’s move to add $26 million to expand 4-year-old kindergarten and about $15 million to give state workers a 1 percent raise.

Because conservative Senate Republicans annually vote against the state budget, any spending plan must win the support of Senate Democrats to pass.

Asked Thursday if Senate Democrats would vote for a budget that does not expand Medicaid but gives tax deductions for private education, Democratic leader Setzler said, “It will be a very high hurdle if it is adopted, absolutely.”

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