SC House bill would end ‘school choice’ for student-property owners

jself@thestate.comMay 21, 2013 

— A decades-old form of “school choice” is under fire from lawmakers who say it is not fair to all S.C. families.

A House bill that advanced Tuesday would repeal a 1962 state law that allows students to attend school in districts where they do not live, as long as they own property in that district with a tax value of at least $300.

The bill, sponsored by state Rep. James Smith, D-Richland, would eliminate the law. Critics say the law is a vestige of the segregation era, allowing families who are able to buy property in their children’s names to choose schools for them – a form of “school choice” not available to everyone.

Opponents of the bill, including S.C. Schools Superintendent Mick Zais, say it would eliminate educational choices for families. “The bill eliminates a form of school choice for students and parents without offering an alternative, such as an open-enrollment option,” said Jay Ragley, Zais’ spokesman.

The House Education Committee approved the bill by a narrow, bipartisan 9-7 vote. The bill now goes to the House floor for debate. If it passes, it is unlikely the Senate will take it up this year, but it would be on the upper chamber’s agenda when it returns in January.

If the bill becomes law, it would not apply to non-resident students currently allowed to attend school in districts where they own property.

The Charleston County school district is pushing the bill, arguing non-resident students are attending its schools, including two of the state’s top high schools, and taking seats that Charleston students otherwise would fill, said John Emerson, the district’s attorney.

The district discovered 15 non-resident students attending its Academic Magnet High School and the School of the Arts after being sued in 2010 by a Berkeley County student. The Berkeley student was accepted to the magnet school but, later, told she would have to move to the county to attend. At the time, the school district limited enrollment in its magnet schools to Charleston students only. In December, the S.C. Supreme Court upheld a Circuit Court order that the student had a right to attend the school if she purchased property in the district.

Fort Mill schools affected

Republican state Reps. Ralph Norman of Rock Hill and Raye Felder of Fort Mill say the law allows students from Charlotte to attend Fort Mill schools without paying local fees and taxes that support those schools.

State Rep. Tommy Stringer, R-Greenville, opposes the bill, saying the law allows children who live near county lines a chance to attend schools closer to them.

“It’s much more ... than a good-school, bad-school issue,” Stringer said. “Once it gets to the floor and people understand what’s about to happen, we’ll probably see more opposition.”

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