COLUMBIA — Support for private school choice programs in South Carolina has increased dramatically in the last five years, but the public remains deeply divided over the issue, according to a new Winthrop Poll.
South Carolinians who support the state giving tax credits or vouchers to help parents pay for private school for their children narrowly outnumber those who oppose the idea by 45.2 percent to 41.8 percent, according to the poll, which asked the question exclusively for The State newspaper in Columbia.
The poll was taken from Oct. 19 to 27, interviewing 887 adults living in South Carolina.
Private school choice supporters said the margin, though small, shows the public is growing more open to the idea.
Critics say opposition still is strong.
The results come as South Carolina prepares to launch its first private school choice program. Through the program, the state will offer tax credits for donations made to nonprofits that make grants, or scholarships, to special-needs students who go to private schools.
South Carolina is one of 13 states to adopt tuition tax-credit programs, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Approved this year, the tax credits have renewed a decade-long debate over the role that government should play in helping families pay for private school.
Until this year, private school choice proposals had failed in the S.C. General Assembly.
Support for expanding families education choices, including private education, is growing, private school choice supporters say.
There are more educational options today than what there was in 2008 and, certainly, more than there was in 2000, said state Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Berkeley, who wants to expand the states new private school choice program, set to launch Jan. 1.
Grooms would like to see the state adopt a tax credit to encourage scholarships for low-income students so they can go to private schools, too.
He also would like the state to give tax deductions to parents who educate their children outside the public school system.
A state Senate Finance Committee panel is evaluating that proposal, which would cost the state more than $30 million in lost tax revenue, according to estimates.
State Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Richland, a member of the panel, said he continues to be very leery of any mechanism that allows public moneys to be transferred out of a public school system into a private or religious school system.
Lourie and other critics of private school choice say the state underfunds public schools, giving them less than recommended by state law, and cannot afford to divert state income to private schools.
They also say the growing number of education options available in public schools makes subsidizing private schools unnecessary.
When state lawmakers return in January, Lourie said he hopes the school choice debate turns to ways to create more public school options for families.
Choice making gains
In 2008, South Carolinians opposed vouchers and tax credits to help pay for private school by 45 percent to 30 percent, according to a Winthrop Poll taken then.
Since then, however, public support for private school choice has increased.
A 2010 Winthrop Poll of likely South Carolina voters showed a nearly even split with 47 percent supporting tuition-tax credits or vouchers and 45 percent opposing them.
The new poll shows a wider margin, though the 2010 and October polls compare poorly since the October poll targeted the general public and the 2010 poll interviewed likely voters only.
Winthrop Poll director Scott Huffmon noted the polls margin of error plus or minus 3.3 percentage points is about the same as the margin separating those who support and oppose tuition tax credits or vouchers.
Statistically, there is no clear direction that can be discerned from this, Huffmon said. Both sides have people that are deeply, deeply passionate.
However, Grooms contends the results of the poll might have been more favorable to school choice programs if the question asked had avoided the politically charged word vouchers.
The question asked: Some people think that a voucher program would take much-needed money away from public schools. On the other hand, some people think that a voucher program would allow parents to get their children out of failing public schools. Would you support or oppose a policy that would allow parents to use vouchers or tuition-tax credits to send their children to private schools?
In using vouchers, the question asked South Carolinians about a type of school choice that is more controversial than the program the state recently adopted, said private school choice advocate Neil Mellen.
In traditional voucher programs, a government sets aside tax revenue for parents to use to pay private school tuition.
In some states, that money comes directly from public education funding, Mellen said.
In South Carolina, school choice supporters are not pushing for traditional vouchers, he said.
Instead, the state is foregoing $8 million in tax revenue the maximum in tax credits it will offer.
Money for scholarships comes from private companies and citizens who make donations to nonprofit organizations that award the scholarships.
The donors get tax credits, reducing the taxes they owe the state.
Opponents: Schools not failing
Critics see little distinction in the various types of private school choice policies.
They say lost state tax revenue whether lost through tax credits or vouchers will force lawmakers to make cuts in education or other valuable programs.
Public school supporters, too, were unhappy with the question asked.
Patrick Hayes, a Charleston school teacher and director of the EdFirstSC teacher advocacy group, said the question asked reflects a misconception about public education that is central to the school choice debate.
The premise is that were getting kids out of failing schools, Hayes said. That is a popular, and its an escalating, misconception that our schools are failing.
In reality, Hayes said, South Carolina schools are doing better than expected.
Were doing a fantastic job with the kids that we have, Hayes said. But we hear a constant stream of rhetoric that would suggest that our schools are a pit of failure, when theyve been improving steadily for the past several years.