Westminster Catawba among 12 private S.C. schools approved for tuition grants

jself@thestate.comAugust 6, 2013 

Twelve S.C. private schools – including Rock Hill’s Westminster Catawba Christian School – have been cleared to enroll special-needs students paying with tuition grants made possible through the state’s first school-choice program.

In a statement, Westminster Catawba’s interim head of school Maren Halvorson said, “Westminster Catawba Christian School is pleased to be selected as one of the first schools to have the opportunity to better serve students with exceptional needs, particularly those desiring an education from a biblical perspective.”

Starting Jan. 1, South Carolinians can claim a tax credit for donations made to organizations that give grants to special-needs students to go to private schools. The tax credit is the state’s first school-choice program after years of failed legislative efforts to pass similar proposals.

The law limits participation to private schools that are members in good standing with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, the S.C. Association of Christian Schools or the S.C. Independent Schools Association.

So far, 11 schools in addition to Westminster Catawba have been accepted to take part in the program, including schools in Anderson, Charleston, Columbia, Florence, Greenville, North Augusta, Russellville and Sumter.

“That list will grow,” said Melanie Barton, director of the state Education Oversight Committee, the state agency tasked with approving schools for participation in the program.

The Oversight Committee contacted more than 200 private schools about participating. Most have not responded yet, but Barton said more are expected to apply.

Participating schools must submit documentation to the state showing they meet certain standards, including having programs serving special-needs students and regularly testing students to gauge their progress, said Dana Yow, the Oversight Committee’s communications director.

“We think South Carolina is forward-thinking in its approach to provide a broader range of educational opportunities to its citizens,” said Halvorson in the statement.

In the state budget starting July 1, lawmakers approved up to $8 million in tax credits for donations made to organizations that give private-school scholarships to special-needs students. The program will have to be approved again next year to continue.

The grants would be for tuition or $10,000, whichever is lower.

At Westminster Catawba, 2013-2014 tuition for students in grades k-12 ranges from $7,275 to $8,350 per year per student. The tuition drops slightly if more than two students in one family attend.

Around the state, the following organizations plan to take donations and offer grants.

• Columbia-based Advance Carolina will provide grants to students to attend schools belonging to the S.C. Association of Christian Schools, said Edward Earwood, executive director of both organizations.

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Charleston is forming a scholarship-funding organization to assist students in attending Charleston-area Catholic schools, said Jacqualine Kasprowski, the diocese’s associate director for secondary education and principal of Columbia’s Cardinal Newman School. At least six or seven Catholic schools provide services for special-needs students, she said.

Palmetto Kids First Scholarship Program of Mount Pleasant plans on filling another niche, said Jeff Davis, a consultant working with the group and a tax attorney who helped similar organizations in Georgia. The organization plans on providing grants to students to attend schools who are not members of the Catholic Diocese or Association of Christian Schools.

The Herald’s Rachel Southmayd contributed

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