School choice legislation gains support


Legislation helping low-income and disabled students attend independent schools recently passed out of the South Carolina’s House of Representatives by a vote of 65 to 49.

“Parents have the most information and best motivation to make decisions for their own children,” explained Representative Eric Bedingfield (R-Greenville), one of the bill’s chief sponsors. The plan supports low-income students and children with special educational needs through privately funded scholarships. Scholarship donors would be eligible for income tax credits. Modest tax deductions for families who homeschool their children or pay out of pocket for independent schools are also part of the plan.

The bill emerged despite a decade long fight led by public school administrators against this and similar plans.

“The amount of public time and money that’s been used to fight this is staggering,” explained long time choice activist and current South Carolina GOP Chairman Chad Connelly. He cites thousands of pages of emails obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests detailing political coordination by school officials against the bill, its sponsors and even local supporters. “District bureaucrats have pressured weary teachers and to lobby elected officials against the bill during the school day. They’ve asked mis-informed teachers to crash School Choice rallies, worked to recruit primary challengers against bill sponsors, and essentially told lawmakers they can deliver votes and campaign contributions if they defeat this common sense reform.”

Lobbyists from school administrators associations worry the program will decrease total state tax collections, which they assume will siphon money away from traditional public school districts. Representative Brian White (R-Anderson), who chairs the House Ways and Means Committee and is chief sponsor of the bill, insists it won’t. “It’s always been the saying, ‘you’re hurting public education by doing choice.’ Well, public education is funded with sales tax, and this is all with income tax. I don’t think you’re going to see it coming out of [public] education by any stretch of the imagination.”

Some state officials have gone further, pointing out how similar programs in other states result in net savings for all taxpayers. “Tax credits for school choice ultimately save money because the size of the credit is radically smaller than the level of per-student spending in the public schools,” explained Curtis Loftis, South Carolina’s State Treasurer. Lofits has explained how the 15,000 low-income children already attending private schools save state taxpayers about $72 million each year, or about nine dollars for each dollar their low-income parents pay in state income tax. Jackie Hicks of the NEA-affiliated South Carolina Education Association (SCEA) isn’t so sure. In testimony before lawmakers she insisted there “would be a certain amount of money that would originally go to the general fund that would no longer go.” Hicks worries about the ability of parents with children who have special needs to make choices among schools. “We need to have another measure [beside parental satisfaction], because a parent could arbitrarily choose.”

Sponsors of the bill disagree. “We cannot legislate parental engagement, but we can give parents of all income levels the means and motivation to get involved in their children’s education. A great start is expanding choice among different types of schools,” explained Representative Bill Taylor (R-Aiken).