SC Senate defeats tax credits for private school tuition

jself@thestate.comMay 22, 2013 

  • Costs, benefits of school-choice bill

    A state economic advisory board estimated how many students would take advantage of tax deductions in state Sen. Larry Grooms’ school-choice proposal and how much that would cost the state if it became law. Its findings:

    Deduction: Number of students, cost to state

    $4,000 for private school: 52,729, $12.5 million

    $2,000 for home schoolers: 13,500, $1.4 million

    $1,000 for attending school outside students’ home district: 3,294, $160,000

    Plus: $25 million, the total the state would have given in tax credits for donations made to nonprofit scholarship-granting organizations

A proposal to give tax breaks to parents of students who are home-schooled or go to private schools was defeated in the S.C. Senate Wednesday, despite predictions from Republicans that the vote would be close.

Offered by state Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Berkeley, the proposal also would have given tax credits for donations to organizations providing grants to poor or disabled students to attend private school.

After nearly three hours of debate, the Senate voted 23-18 to reject the proposal, which supporters have pushed for a decade with little success. Last year, for the first time, the GOP-controlled House passed a similar proposal, but it died in the Senate.

Grooms said that, regardless of the outcome of the vote, he wanted a chance to debate the proposal on the Senate floor, take questions and talk about the bill’s purpose.

This year, Republicans said the proposal had its best chance yet of passing the Senate. A new group of conservative GOP freshmen put the bill within “striking distance” of winning, state Sen. Greg Gregory, R-Lancaster, said before the vote.

However, nine Republicans voted with the Senate’s minority-party Democrats to defeat the proposal.

Critics said they were worried the state would lose $39.1 million in revenue if it granted the tax breaks, according to a state economic advisory board.

The proposal would have given parents tax deductions of $4,000 for sending their children to private school, $2,000 for home-schooling their children, and $1,000 for sending their children to a school in another school district.

The tax credits would have encouraged donations to scholarship-granting organizations that gave out 95 percent of the donations they received in scholarships, Grooms said. The grants would have been for the amount of tuition or up to $5,000 for low-income students and $10,000 for children with disabilities.

Democrats, including state Sen. John Scott, D-Richland, said that for some families, the scholarships would not cover the cost of private school.

State Sen. Kevin Johnson, D-Clarendon, also expressed concerns private schools might not want to accept students qualifying for the program.

Earlier this year, Senate Finance Committee chairman Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, formed a special panel to review Grooms’ bill and hold public hearings. The panel is tasked with studying the issue and reporting to the full committee in January.

Grooms said that Leatherman appointed to the panel some of the most outspoken critics of his proposal.

The panel includes state Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Richland, who said during the group’s first meeting that he would approach the proposal with an open mind, despite having been a vocal opponent in the past.

During Wednesday’s Senate debate, Lourie said he would consider the tax breaks only after lawmakers agreed to fund public education at levels recommended by a formula in state law. The state underfunds public education by $670 a student, according to that formula.

“Until we start addressing the core needs of public education, and make sure that every child in every school district in South Carolina has an equal opportunity to succeed, you’ll see staunch opposition to any program that in any way undermines the funding for the public school system,” Lourie said.

Early Wednesday, members of the S.C. School Boards Association waited for Grooms’ amendment to come up on the Senate floor, urging senators to vote against it.

The nine Republicans who voted against the bill included many of the Senate’s leaders — President Pro Tempore John Courson of Richland County, who also is head of the Senate Education Committee; Finance chairman Leatherman; Judiciary Committee chairman Larry Martin of Pickens; Rules Committee chairman Ronnie Cromer of Newberry; Banking and Insurance Committee chairman Wes Hayes of Rock Hill; Labor, Commerce and Industry committee chairman Thomas Alexander of Oconee; Ethics Committee chairman Luke Rankin of Horry; and General Committee chairman William O’Dell of Abbeville. Sen. Paul Campbell, R-Berkeley, was the other Republican who voted against the tax credits.

“This tax voucher would take more money out of the public school system that we desperately need,” said Bobby Parker, Lancaster County school district chairman.

In his 11th year on the Lancaster school board, Parker said this year is as close as the school-choice proposal has come to passing. “We’ll be fighting it again,” he predicted.

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