South Carolina’s Senate is contemplating joining the list of states with an education savings account style school voucher program. While very similar to proposals considered and passed in other states, South Carolina’s Senate Bill 935, currently in committee, has some distinctive features.
The broad outlines are typical. The state will offer money to any parents wiling to pull their child out of public education and shop for education on their own. The bill does limit eligibility to families under 200% of the poverty level. That family may take the ESA money and spend it on any of a wide array of “qualifying expenses” which include private school tuition, textbooks, computer hardware, online courses, transportation fees (for getting to and from a provider), and fees for consultant or money manager who is hired to handle the funds. But as always with vouchers, once the parents take the payout, the state washes its hands of their child’s education.
There are a few guardrails in this program that not all ESA programs include. Parents are required to provide their child with instruction in English/language arts, writing, math, social studies and science; not all ESA programs require any particular courses be covered. The program also calls for random audits of some parents annually, which may not seem like a very tight watch to keep on taxpayer money, but it’s more than some states require. There are even some clauses that require a certain level of financial viability for providers.
As is usually the case, the ESA funds are made up of the money that the state would have given to the student’s home public school. However, should the student decide to drop out of the voucher program and go back to public school, any left over money will go back to the state program account. Once the public school loses that money, they never get it back, even if they get back the student that the money was supposedly following.
Other portions of the bill are more transparent about the intent of the program than some other states have been.
One of the unstated goals of most voucher programs has been to funnel public tax dollars to private religious schools, and private Christian schools are written directly into this bill. Any private schools that wish to be part of the program must be certified by the South Carolina Association of Christian Schools, the South Carolina Independent Schools Association, the Palmetto Association of Independent Schools, Cognia, or the National Council for Private School Accreditation. The ESA Review Panel that will be established to advise the education department will include two ESA parents, five politically appointed members, and one member each recommended by the South Carolina Association of Christian Schools, the South Carolina Independent Schools Association, and the Palmetto Association of Independent Schools. So private Christian school interests are well-guarded.
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Still, one of the challenges of getting public money to religious schools has been avoiding the strings that usually come attached to public tax dollars. To avoid that issue, newer ESA bills come with “hands off” clauses; this bill is very explicit in what the state will not do. The state may not “regulate the educational program of a certified education provider,” and the program does not “expand the regulatory authority of the State, its officers or a school district.” A provider who accepts ESA dollars is not “an agent of the State or federal government,” meaning they are not subject to the same rules, and to further spell that out, the bill also notes that “providers shall not be required to alter their creeds, practices, admissions policy, or curriculum.”
In other words, beyond being explicitly forbidden to discriminate on the basis of race, color, and national origin. private schools participating in this program will be free to discriminate in any other ways they wish. Like all voucher programs, it helps state government step away from the work of providing students with an education, while leaving parents on their own to navigate a market that may or may not welcome their child.