BATTLE LOOMS OVER EXPANSION OF SCHOLARSHIPS …
Supporters of South Carolina’s limited, special needs parental choice program say they have raised $9.2 million for academic scholarships for the current school year – just shy of the $10 million cap imposed by the GOP-controlled S.C. General Assembly.
This means the program will be able to award scholarships to all eligible children who received them last year.
“This entails 1,342 students, at 114 schools, with individual scholarships averaging around $3,472,” noted a press release from the Palmetto Promise Institute, a group which supports the fledgling program.
Good news? Sure … but as we’ve previously noted lawmakers’ commitment to academic freedom in this state remains weak (even as they reflexively support billions in new spending and borrowing on a demonstrably-failed government-run system).
In fact, there is an estimated $25 million in annual demand for special needs scholarships in South Carolina – meaning lawmakers are funding only 40 percent of the market for this one particular form of parental choice.
Other broader choice options are totally unsupported.
South Carolina’s choice program – Exceptional SC – is run under the auspices of the S.C. Department of Revenue (SCDOR), a change we reluctantly supported given that lawmakers were prepared to kill the program completely in the event it wasn’t effectuated.
Actually, some believe moving the program to SCDOR was an attempt to kill it.
Thankfully that didn’t happen. SCDOR’s former director Rick Reames – a staunch school choice supporter – is credited with moving quickly to get the program up and running within his agency. Reames (below) is also credited with taking steps to ensure the success of the program under his successor.
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(Pic via S.C. Governor’s Office)
“(He) could’ve let this program die,” one choice advocate told us.
Advocates – and more importantly the parents and children now benefitting from these scholarships – are glad he didn’t.
“This strong progress made by Exceptional SC in the face of significant obstacles is encouraging,” said Oran Smith, Palmetto Promise’s senior fellow. “This is exactly what we predicted would occur if the program were given a second chance. We are thankful that lawmakers understood the significance of supporting these exceptional students.”
What happens now? As we noted in a recent status check on this issue, there are several battle lines forming on the school choice front as the 2017-2018 session of the S.C. General Assembly ramps up.
Aside from the debate over the total scholarship amount for the program, there is an effort underway to make choice part of permanent state law. Currently scholarship money for special needs students gets approved via a budget proviso – meaning the program has to be reauthorized every year.
In addition to raising the cap to better reflect demand, advocates want the program firmly ensconced within the code of laws.
“With the program now on stable footing and nearly $25 million in tuition support requested by eligible students, lawmakers should raise the statewide credit cap to fully fund current students and ensure that no deserving family is turned away.” said Ellen Weaver, president of the Palmetto Promise Institute. “They should also move the program into permanent law to give certainty to families. This is one critical way that South Carolina can advance the goal of helping every student in our state reach their full, God-given potential.”
We agree … and one lawmaker is moving to make sure these important changes happen sooner rather than later.
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As we exclusively reported back in November, reform-minded S.C. Senator Tom Davis (above) is leading an effort to dramatically expand the state’s fledgling school choice program – proposing to raise the cap on special needs scholarships from $10 million to $25 million (i.e. equal to the current level of demand) while creating a new $25 million scholarship program for low-income students.
Davis’ bill would also make the state’s choice program part of permanent law.
We enthusiastically endorse Davis’ proposal – and would encourage state lawmakers to adopt it during the current legislative session. Obviously $50 million in privately-funded scholarships is a far cry from the broad-based universal parental choice South Carolina needs, but as we noted at the time Davis’ bill represents a “solid step in the right direction” as well as “the first step toward providing choice options for low-income students.”
That latter step is absolutely critical.
This website has spent the better part of the last decade championing expanded parental options. We believe such choices promote the accountability of the marketplace – which is infinitely preferable to government “accountability.”
Market-based accountability leads to better outcomes, which leads to a more educated workforce and a stronger economy.
This cannot continue. If future generations of South Carolinians are ever to reach their full potential, our elected officials cannot continue forcing them to attend increasingly-expensive, one-size-fits-all “failure factories.”
It’s time for change in the Palmetto State, people. It’s time for real choice.
(Banner via iStock)