Republicans want input from education voucher bill opponents

COLUMBIA, S.C. — The leader of Republicans in the South Carolina Senate said one of his main goals this session is to pass a bill that would allow some parents to get public money to spend on private schools.

But Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey said Thursday that he wants to hear from Democrats and others skeptical about the bill and if he can’t make them full supporters, at least alleviate some of their concerns.

“I’m not interested in blowing up public schools,” the Republican from Edgefield said. “But I do think there are a number of students that are not being served very well.”

At the moment, the proposal would allow parents to spend up to about $7,000 of public school money on private schools as well as tutoring, equipment or other needs.

Any student whose family makes less than twice the federal poverty limit — about $53,000 for a family of four — or is eligible for Medicaid could enroll in what the bill calls education savings accounts.

The proposal would cap the number of students who can use the accounts, gradually lifting the limits until they were gone after five years. Economists who estimate how much bills could cost issued a fiscal impact statement saying if every eligible student participates, the program would cost $2.9 billion, according to the state Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Office.

“Until we fully fund the public school system, it doesn’t make any sense to create a competing school system,” said Democratic Sen. Brad Hutto from Orangeburg.

Massey said that massive estimate is absurd because the experience in other states with vouchers has shown only a small percentage of eligible students sign up.

Massey plans another Senate Education subcommittee next week to work on changes to the bill. He is willing to negotiate about tweaking the eligibility requirements, adding accountability, further caps on how many students can enroll and anything else.

Teacher groups and other education organizations said taking money out of public schools makes it harder to improve South Carolina public schools that were not fully funded for years.

They question how the state can determine if the program is helping education and wonder if private schools, many with tuition rates more expensive than the voucher amounts, will refuse to take certain students.

“All schools are not equal because all schools don’t get the same types of students,” said Sen. Darrell Jackson, a Democrat from Hopkins.

Massey started pushing the bill in 2020, but the COVID-19 pandemic halted that legislative session and derailed his original proposal. But that may have helped the bill in the long term as parents and leaders wanted more flexibility after problems were exposed in the pandemic, supporters said.

The bill also will likely become an issue in the 2022 state school superintendent election as current Superintendent Molly Spearman is not running again. Spearman said the state can play a role in helping with school choice, but the program must be run by experienced people with an ability to measure what is happening to student achievement.

Massey has made vouchers one of his main priorities for the 2022 General Assembly session that ends in May. Republican leaders in the House also are interested in the program. Any bill that doesn’t pass before the session ends dies.

Massey said there are school systems in South Carolina that will never get better no matter how much money is sent to them without the kind of change that can come by giving parents a wide range of choices. He didn’t name names.

“It doesn’t matter how much money you throw in the existing systems. It’s not going to do much for those children,” Massey said.

(WATCH BELOW: South Carolina education superintendent pushes for teachers to get vaccine)