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State House

South Carolina Senate Gets Serious About School Choice

Will the House follow suit?

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The South Carolina Senate has passed one bill designed to give certain parents greater control over determining their child’s education – and a second companion piece of school choice legislation appears poised to follow on its heels soon.

Some State House observers are concerned we could be headed for a repeat of 2022, though, when the House and Senate both passed Education Scholarship Accounts (ESAs) only to see the legislation die when the two chambers were unable to agree on testing requirements.

Others see a more favorable political environment today.

“I think it’s a confluence of things,” said senator Tom Davis of Beaufort, the author of one of the measures under consideration. “There’s been a reaction by parents who wanted to become more involved in how their kids are educated, to not just simply accept what the school districts and superintendents and school boards say and how we’re going about educating kids. There’s a grassroots movement among these parents to become more actively involved in educating their kids.”

That is true …



“Layered on top of that you’ve got more and more instances where school districts aren’t focusing on what I would consider the fundamentals,” Davis added. “There is a growing awareness that in our traditional K-12 schools it’s not just reading, writing, and arithmetic anymore. There’s a social agenda layered into it. And I think those things are sort of driving this movement. It’s got resonance now.”

That was demonstrated by last week’s Senate passage of S. 39, creating ESAs for specific families. The account would allow some low-income families who send their children to private school to pay for private-school tuition and other allowable costs, such as books, fees, internet, and transportation.

Starting with 5,000 qualifying students in its first year, parents would receive $6,000 in state funds in an ESA. The number would increase to 10,000 students the next year, and 15,000 when fully implemented, at which point it would cost $90 million. That money would come from the state’s general fund.

A second proposal, the PACE bill introduced by Davis, would expand the impact of school choice by providing $100 million in the first year broken into four categories: Children with exceptional and special needs; those who are economically disadvantaged (families that are at 200 percent of poverty or less on the federal poverty index); homeschoolers; and general scholarship students. With a maximum cap of $11,000 per student, it would provide assistance to 20,000 students with a price tag of $100 million annually.        

The PACE bill has another distinction as well. South Carolina is prohibited from spending public money on private or religious schools.

“My approach avoids that problem because the $100 million in the first year of the PACE program doesn’t rely upon money coming out of the general fund,” Davis said. “It allows for the creation of so-called scholarship funding organizations. These are private organizations and groups that would solicit donations from big corporations. The pitch would be, ‘Hey, if you give money for these special needs scholarships or exceptional needs scholarships or whatever it is, you get to write that off your state taxes dollar for dollar. So, it doesn’t cost you anything.’”

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Tom Davis (Travis Bell Photography)

“That mechanism is useful because the money never becomes state money,” Davis continued. “It never gets into the General Fund. It would go from the donors directly to these private scholarship funding organizations. Then they take a tax credit to offset what they donated. So, the money never gets into the treasury, it’s never state dollars.”

The PACE bill is currently moving forward in the Senate committee process.

The House has yet to vote on either issue this session, although the ESA bill was received from the Senate and referred to its ways and means committee on February 2.

As our founding editor Will Folks recently noted, the renewed push for school choice comes as South Carolina’s government-run schools continue falling further behind the rest of the nation – despite receiving 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.



Mark Powell (Provided)

J. Mark Powell is an award-winning former TV journalist, government communications veteran, and a political consultant. He is also an author and an avid Civil War enthusiast. Got a tip or a story idea for Mark? Email him at



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