Politics

Guest Column: South Carolina School Choice Law Benefits The Public

Enhancing academic performance while reducing social friction and sectarian conflict about education policy …

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by ANASTASIA P. BODEN, BRENT SKORUP, & ALEX KHOURY

In the spring of 2023, Governor Henry McMaster of South Carolina signed a law establishing an Education Scholarship Trust Fund Program. The law provides eligible low- and moderate-income families with a trust fund account, up to $6,000 per eligible student, per school year. Parents can direct funds towards a variety of education-related expenses, including after-school tutoring, special needs accommodations, and tuition and fees associated with transferring between public schools or attending a private and independent school.

It’s this latter, “school choice,” aspect of the law that has prompted a legal challenge. In October 2023, before the initial trust fund accounts could be created and used by parents, a collection of parents, the state chapter of the NAACP, and a state teachers’ union petitioned the Supreme Court of South Carolina to prevent the program’s implementation. They allege it violates the state Constitution on several grounds, including that the state-funded program lacks a “public purpose” and, thus, violates Article X, section 5.

On December 12, 2023, the court agreed to hear the case, called Eidson v. South Carolina Department of Education.

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“The program is created to increase students’ and public schools’ academic performance.”

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The Cato Institute has filed an amicus brief in support of the program. Our brief highlights that the program has several “public purposes” that would benefit South Carolina and its residents.

First, the program is created to increase students’ and public schools’ academic performance. Providing new funds to parents to supplement their child’s education with after-school or weekend classes, test prep, or tutors amounts to a self-evident public purpose that tends to improve students’ academic performance.

Further, the controversial school choice aspect of the program also has a public purpose. The program allows some low- and moderate-income parents who are unhappy with their assigned public school to transfer their child to a new school. Empirical research highlighted by EdChoice and others shows that programs like this provide accountability to assigned public schools and have a positive effect on public school operations or students’ academic performance.

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Second, our brief argues that the program would reduce conflict about education policy. Americans’ preferences about education policy vary greatly. Many South Carolina parents are deeply unhappy with the curriculum, funding, homework, or disciplinary policies at their assigned public school. This results in parent resentment, school board fights, and occasional litigation.

Cato’s Neal McCluskey and others have highlighted how school choice programs reduce social friction by allowing parents to transfer their children to public and independent schools that do not undermine the parents’ educational and civic values.

Lastly, our brief argues that the program would reduce sectarian conflict about education policy.

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Many South Carolina parents are religious, and there is an undeniable parental appetite for religious instruction and prayer in public and independent schools, where children spend most of their waking hours. However, public schools are constitutionally prohibited from providing religious instruction.

The program has a “release-valve” effect because it enables religious minorities to hire like-minded tutors, enroll their child at a religious independent school, or transfer their child to a public school that parents believe will not undermine the religious teaching their children receive at home. The program, therefore, should reduce sectarian conflict over education policy and improve parental satisfaction with their school.

For these reasons, our brief urges that the South Carolina Supreme Court find that the Education Scholarship Trust Fund Program confers a public benefit to South Carolina and its residents that is consistent with the state Constitution.

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ABOUT THE AUTHORS …

Anastasia Boden is the director of the Cato Institute’s Robert A. Levy Center for Constitutional Studies. Brent Skorup is a research fellow at the Levy Center. Alex Khoury is a legal associated at the Cato Institute. Their column – reprinted with permission – originally appeared on the Cato Institute website.

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3 comments

Teresa Whetzel Top fan February 21, 2024 at 12:37 pm

It’s great that this article is on the side of School Choice however I don’t exactly believe this will be the outcome. Many parents have moved their children to charter schools, religious schools etc, but nothing has improved in the Public Schools. Public schools that don’t have enough teachers, curriculums that are limited due to teacher shortages. Maybe Public schools that are for the majority should be the first to get improvements

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JustCallMeAva Top fan February 21, 2024 at 1:27 pm

If a person wants their child to receive a “Christian” education or other religious education, then they should pay for it out of their own pocket, not with the use of my tax dollars. And converting public tax dollars to private use, at the user’s discretion, is a recipe for corruption, which this state already has quite enough of. What goes unsaid in this little free advertisement for “school choice” is that it’s regurgitated propaganda coming straight from the radical right-wing Cato Institute courtesy of the Koch family, who want to monetize public schools by converting them into choice programs, where they, of course, would make a fat profit. The arguments for “choice” also don’t account for students who have disabilities whom private schools typically refuse to enroll, but public schools must serve these kids, thereby dragging down the academic performance of a school. Pulling money out of public schools will see their hasty demise at a time when fewer students are enrolling in teacher education programs. But that’s the right-wing plan–defund public education. What they never seem to focus on is how limited the curriculum can be in some of these private, “religious” schools. But that’s another right-wing goal as well–the dumber the populace, the easier they’ll fall for con jobs like “school choice”.

Reply
William February 21, 2024 at 4:22 pm

Hear, hear! You hit the nail on the head. This is just a foot in the door. The ultimate goal is for the taxpayers to pick up the tab for families who want to send their kids to private schools. In the end, they want everyone, including those of us who do not even have children in school to help multi-millionaires pay for their kids’ education.

Every parent has school choice. They can choose to go to public school on the taxpayer dime, they can choose to go to private school on their dime or they can choose to home school. Ultimately what this leads to is a two-tiered education system. One for the rich and one for the poor, and the taxpayer pays for both.

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