COLUMBIA -- The latest plan to use tax credits to help parents send their children to private school died by slim margins Wednesday in the South Carolina House.
With no debate, representatives voted 60-59 to reject the measure. In a subsequent vote of 61-59, the House refused to reconsider -- officially killing the bill. It was a stunningly swift vote on the contentious issue that keeps popping up in the Legislature.
The same bill was rejected a month ago by the Senate Education Committee, also with very little discussion. Senate Education Chairman John Courson said then that lawmakers knew where they stood philosophically on the issue.
Rep. Chip Limehouse, R-Charleston, said Wednesday the state needs to take action to improve education; that's why he voted for the voucher plan.
"It's a shame it didn't pass," he said. "All we have to fear is fear itself."
Despite the rejection in both chambers, the group pushing the effort pledges to return for another round.
"We're excited it got that close. We've always seen this as a long-term pursuit," said Neil Mellen, spokesman for South Carolinians for Responsible Government. "We still firmly believe every child in South Carolina would benefit from more options and a larger menu of choices for parents, and that's the right thing to do."
Opponents have long argued the state shouldn't re-direct public money to subsidize private schools that don't have to accept all students or abide by state and federal accountability laws.
"The bipartisan vote sends a very clear and resounding message that the citizens of South Carolina are not interested in abandoning our public school students," Paul Krohne, executive director of the state School Boards Association, said in a statement. "If nothing else, this issue has galvanized those of us in South Carolina -- and there are thousands -- who reject the abandonment philosophy."
The idea has died repeatedly in the Legislature since former Gov. Mark Sanford pushed the first version in 2004 and divided Republicans as out-of-state money from the issue's supporters poured into campaign coffers.
This year, the advocacy group touted a re-design in the amount of the scholarship or credit and in who's eligible, hoping the re-tooling would pick up support.
Advocates also argued this year's version would save the state money. But an estimate by state budget advisers didn't support that.
According to their report, the state would save $2 million the first year. However, starting in the second year, revenue lost because of tax credits would increasingly exceed savings because of reduced payments to districts as public school populations declined. Revenue loss to the state would reach $133 million annually by 2023-24 when all students would be eligible.
Advocates called the report flawed. However, to prevent such a loss, the House Ways and Means Committee amended the bill to end the program in five years if the state is losing money, before sending it to the floor.
According to the report, the state would lose $35 million in the fourth year, for a cumulative loss over that time of $54 million.
The basics of the latest plan were the same as previous ones: The bill would give tax breaks to parents who can afford to pay tuition up front, while parents could apply for scholarships. The people and businesses that donate money for those scholarships could take the tax break.
The key differences were that the amount of tax credit or scholarship would vary by district, and that parents with children already in private school would get no break for several years, and then a reduced amount. The tax credit or scholarship would be tied to half of whatever the state spends on a public school student there. Next school year, the statewide average would be $2,417.
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