(Charleston, SC) A Catholic charity supporting parents whose children struggle with disabilities received its first donation this morning at a small meeting in downtown Charleston.

The St. Thomas Aquinas Scholarship Funding Organization is a special type of non-for-profit, and serves as a scholarship provider (or “SFO”) in South Carolina’s new tax credit funded grant program for exceptional needs students. The group issues grants for students enrolling at private K-12 schools that offer special services for challenged children. These grants can pay for tuition, textbooks and transportation costs at certain state-authorized independent schools.

South Carolina’s new program, “Educational Credits for Exceptional Needs Children,” allows private taxpayers to fund these grants for students with special learning needs. Like dozens of parental choice programs in other states, the goal is to help all parents gain access to schools that meet the individual learning needs of their child.

“The Diocese of Charleston’s participation in the program stems out of commitment to social justice, equal opportunity, and the special esteem in which we hold the sanctity of life and the family,” said Michael F. Acquilano, spokesman and legal counsel for the Church’s SFO.

Bishop England, Cardinal Newman and a number of other Catholic schools across South Carolina have received national acclaim in recent years for their innovative and highly specialized programs that serve special needs students.

“It is essential that children challenged with extra learning difficulties, such as specific learning disabilities, developmental delay and/or Down Syndrome, can be productive participating members of the student body and enjoy all the benefits and blessing of a faith based education, “said Principal Jacquie Kasprowski of Cardinal Newman. “This program, which compliments the many in-house scholarships and tuition abatements our schools already offer, helps us further extend those offers to more families facing financial hardships.

Both individual and corporate donors to the St. Aquinas SFO are eligible for state income tax credits. These contributors can claim a dollar for dollar credit for up to 60 percent of their one-year state tax liability. They are not allowed to designate a specific student or school as beneficiary of the grant.

St. Thomas Aquinas Scholarship Funding Organizations was one of two aspiring SFOs to sign the “Access Opportunity Best Practices Pledge,” a voluntary pledge that includes a disclosure questionnaire about scholarship awarding practices. The other is “Advance Carolina,” which is affiliated with the South Carolina Association of Christian Schools (SCACS). Access Opportunity South Carolina (AOSC) partnered with a coalition of South Carolina private schools and respected scholarship providers around the country to develop the pledge and questionnaire.

The best practices pledge includes a commitment by the signatory SFOs to hold their employees, volunteers, and contractors to the same high standards the ECENC already requires of their Board of Directors. That includes a strict prohibition against felons, bankruptcy filers and the parents of grant recipients. Access Opportunity also provides parents and the public with details of the tax credit funded scholarship program and participating schools at its own website.

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