Do parents have options other than public school?
Who decides where children attend school? What are the options available to parents who are unhappy with their local public school?
Those and other tough questions are being debated in Columbia as both House and Senate subcommittees are set to vote on school choice legislation this month. The bill, termed the “Education Opportunity Act” proposes tax credits to help parents afford the costs associated with choosing a non–public school for their child.
“Just because public schools accept all children doesn’t mean they really serve all children,” explained Bridget Reeves, a native of Lancaster who spent six years homeschooling a son with special learning needs.
Reeves, who testified before a group of state senators in late March, recounted personal and financial sacrifices made by her family when they took their son out of a public school where officials had told her to accept her son “for what he was, and not [to] keep pushing to make him better.” Reeves insists she is not “anti public school,” and pointed out her daughter “was a fine student who thrived in the local public school.” Both her son and her daughter are now enrolled in four–year colleges.
The school choice bill offers two types of support for parents; tuition tax credits for families that can afford the costs of independent schools out of pocket, and tax credit funded tuition scholarships for those who cannot. The average scholarship or credit is anticipated to be $2,400. The level is set at half of the total per–student funding the state provides to traditional public schools.
Critics of the legislation, including education groups such as the state’s School Boards Association and School Administrators Association, insist that money won’t amount to much. “I don’t agree with the bill, but I also say you’re leaving a lot of students out that won’t have a choice … those parents will not be able to afford $2,700 to $4,400 to pay the additional tuition” testified George Wilson. Wilson is the vice chairman of the School Board in Beaufort County and spoke on behalf of the South Carolina School Boards Association, an organization that some critics have described as a publicly funded lobbyist group.
Choice supporters counter that independent school tuition is much lower than Wilson and others will admit. In testimony before a House subcommittee, advocates for the legislation pointed to a recent statewide survey of over 300 non–public schools. “We found out that the median tuition at an independent school in South Carolina is $4,400. So if the stereotype was Heathwood Hall, Porter–Gaud, Hammond— these very elite, expensive schools—that's not really the face of independent education in South Carolina. Those are the outliers,” explained Neil Mellen, a policy researcher testifying in favor of the legislation.
Education subcommittees in both the House and Senate are scheduled to hear more testimony and vote on the proposal by mid–April.