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Guest Column: South Carolina’s Most Robust Academic Freedom Program Has Launched

The Palmetto State’s Educational Scholarship Account (ESA) era has begun …

by WENDY DAMRON

After nearly a decade of hard work by legislators, advocacy groups and the Palmetto Promise Institute, 2023 finally saw the realization of a more robust education freedom program in the Palmetto State: The Education Scholarship Trust Fund (ESTF).  

This achievement for South Carolina is part of a wave of legislation across the country establishing Education Scholarship Account (ESA) programs. The original programs in Florida (2011) and Arizona (2014) have been joined by South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, Mississippi, Arkansas, New Hampshire, West Virginia, Indiana, Iowa, Montana, and Utah.

Six state programs are universal, meaning that there are no income thresholds to meet to qualify. ESAs are open to everyone (this is where South Carolina needs to be).

(Click to view)

ESAs are popular because unlike other education choice programs, families can utilize ESA funds to tailor a personalized education for their students, covering expenses such as independent school tuition, tutoring, educational therapies, online courses, and more. Administered by the South Carolina Department of Education (SCDE), the program’s $6,000 scholarship closely aligns with the average tuition for independent schools in the state. 

To be eligible for the program in the upcoming (2024-2025) school year, a family’s income must be at 200 percent of the national poverty level or below. To put that into context, that is income of $60,000 a year for a family of four. Additionally, the student must have attended public school in the current (2023-2024) school year – or be entering kindergarten. There are 5,000 scholarships available in 2024, 10,000 in 2025 and 15,000 in 2026. (That cap needs to be removed as soon as possible).

The passage of Education Scholarship Accounts marks a significant victory for parents, students, and the future of education in South Carolina. However, the next step is vital. The families that are eligible for this program are the least likely to know it exists. Therefore, we urge everyone to assist us in spreading the word about this incredible opportunity. The portal is now open for applications! 

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Palmetto Promise Institute has introduced an informational website, scschoolchoice.com, serving as a comprehensive resource hub for parents and education providers. The website provides insights into the ESA program, guidance on eligibility, and a direct link to the SCDE application portal. 

  • Eligible families must be aware that the deadline for students to apply for the ESTF program is March 15, 2024
  • Education providers, including private schools, intending to participate in the ESTF program must also submit their applications, as the provider application portal opened on January 8. Approval of providers takes place on a rolling basis. 

South Carolina stands at a historic crossroads, presenting an unparalleled opportunity to instigate generational change for its students and families. Together, we can ensure that our most vulnerable students gain access to educational opportunities tailored to their needs. The time has come for innovation in education to improve student outcomes. Our children deserve nothing less. 

Note: The South Carolina ESA program, known as ESTF, is not perfect. It should be universal without a cap on the number of eligible students. But until then, we will work to fill every scholarship available now.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR …

Wendy Damron is the President & CEO of Palmetto Promise Institute, a free market think tank that promotes policy solutions to advance a free and flourishing South Carolina. 

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