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‘Nail-Biter’ Vote In South Carolina Senate On School Choice

It’s not the full bill, though …

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A Democratic filibuster and some “Republican” reticence has led the South Carolina Senate to a moment of truth on the issue of school choice.

Unfortunately, the latest amended version of the bill currently up for consideration – S. 39 – has been stripped of its most significant parental choice components. Oh, and this bill wasn’t even remotely close to the universal choice bill signed into law in Arizona last year to begin with.

That’s the bad news … the good news? Senators pushing expanded academic freedom say chamber majority leader Shane Massey and finance chairman Harvey Peeler have agreed to advance the remaining choice provisions of the bill in a separate piece of standalone legislative later this year.

As I reported earlier this month, senators were planning on merging a pair of choice programs in the hopes of providing an estimated $130 million in academic scholarship money to parents in the coming fiscal year. The bulk of that funding would come in the form of tax credits for academic scholarships – including $40 million for any eligible student, $25 million for special needs children, $25 million for economically disadvantaged children and $10 million for homeschool children.

As many as 25,000 children would have benefitted in the event the legislation became law in the coming fiscal year – which begins on July 1, 2023.

Now, state senator Tom Davis - a leading choice proponent - has withdrawn an amendment containing much of that choice as the bill faces a filibuster from Democrat Mike Fanning.

According to my sources, Davis' decision has less to do with Fanning's filibuster and more to do with a dispute within the GOP caucus over two key components of the bill.

"Davis withdrew the amendment after Peeler scheduled a very favorable subcommittee to move it as a stand-alone bill and Massey committed to giving it floor time once it gets out of committee," a source tracking the negotiations told me.

Wait, though ... why not just pass it all now?

Sources familiar with the debate told me Peeler and Massey want to solve "two issues with (the expanded bill), one of which is easy and one may be a dead end." The first issue? So-called "bad actors" participating in the program.

"The easy issue is how to keep bad actors out of the program," one choice supporter told me. "(Choice) is funded by third party intermediaries encouraging/ selling taxpayers on buying tax credits. The tax credits fund the scholarships and the intermediary organizations keep approximately five percent of the money for administrative costs. So the issue is how to draw up criteria for intermediaries that prevents another Jeff Davis problem."

Wait ... a "Jeff Davis problem?" What is that?

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Yeah ... that's a long story. Jeff Davis is the Greenville County Republican party chairman. Along with his wife, Olga Lisinska, Davis formerly operated a scholarship granting-organization in the Palmetto State. Davis and Lisinska have been battling with rival choice proponents over the best way to administer the state's fledgling special needs choice program - a battle which has spilled over into an all-out war for control of the SCGOP.

A bigger issue than alleged "bad actors," though, is finding a steady funding stream for scholarships ...

"Because the bill relies on tax credits for funding, the amount of money available to school choice will decline every time the General Assembly cuts taxes," the choice supporter told me. "It will go to zero if and when the income tax is eliminated."

Is South Carolina even close to eliminating its income tax, though? Hell no ...

In fact, as of this writing the Palmetto State has the highest top marginal income tax rate in the entire southeast.

Which makes this more of a "later" question, if you ask me.

"I don’t see how a (choice) bill passes without a reliable funding stream," one lawmaker told me. "I absolutely support the program, but it needs to be supplemented by a school choice program that has dedicated funding.

(Click to View)

Senator Wes Climer (Travis Bell Photography)

One solution - championed by state senator Wes Climer - is to limit participation in the program to Medicaid-eligible families. There are a few different avenues to qualify for Medicaid, but it’s basically household income at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level - or $60,000 for a family of four. Climer's amendment doubled that to 400 percent of the federal poverty level - or $120,000 for a family of four.

Multiple groups have been working senators over the weekend in support of the Climer amendment, but I am told the vote on whether to adopt it will be a "nail-biter."

The renewed push for school choice comes as South Carolina’s government-run schools continue to fall further behind the rest of the nation despite massive increases in funding. Per pupil funding on South Carolina’s failed government-run system is pushing $18,000 per child, per year … totaling nearly $14 billion annually. And that’s not counting carry-forward balances hoarded by districts, federal “stimulus” funding or proceeds from local bond referendums.

Will state lawmakers finally flip this script and put parents - or more specifically, market forces - in charge?

We shall see ...

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR ...

Will Folks is the founding editor of the news outlet you are currently reading. Prior to founding FITSNews, he served as press secretary to the governor of South Carolina. He lives in the Midlands region of the state with his wife and seven children.

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