COLUMBIA - A one-year extension of South Carolina's first private school tuition program appears to be coasting through the budget process this election year after a decade of GOP infighting.
The program, limited to children with disabilities, didn't take effect until January and faced extinction after a single semester without legislative action. But legislators are on track to extend it as part of their spending plans for the fiscal year starting July 1.
Both the House plan and Senate Finance proposal maintain an $8 million cap on the total tax credits that donors can claim, and a $10,000 limit on the tuition scholarship an eligible special-needs student can receive. Senators continue floor debate on their budget plan this week.
As of Monday, $6.8 million in dollar-for-dollar credits on state income taxes were still available for 2014 filings, according to the state Department of Revenue.
Unlike in previous years, the idea of using tax credits to help parents pay private tuition hasn't been hotly debated. The limited pilot approved in the budget last year represented advocates' first victory after a decade of unsuccessful attempts. House and Senate debates led to mud-slinging GOP primaries against those who voted "no."
Since January, the state has certified five nonprofits to receive donations and grant scholarships. Even some of the staunchest advocates didn't lobby for an expansion next school year.
"We want to show this works. That could take some time," said Neil Mellen of Access Opportunity South Carolina, which is coordinating with all but one of the nonprofits. He was formerly spokesman for South Carolinians for Responsible Government, a main player in the tax-credit push.
The number of scholarships awarded so far is unclear. Mellen estimates dozens among the four that work with his group.
They include a nonprofit the Roman Catholic Diocese of Charleston created to help with tuition to Catholic schools across the state. As of Friday, it had awarded 14 scholarships to students in 11 schools, ranging from $1,000 to $6,500, said spokesman Michael Acquilano.
Palmetto Kids First, the nonprofit not working with Mellen's group, has been the most active, but its fundraising methods have raised concerns. According to its founder, Jeff Davis, the group has raised more than $1 million. So far, it has doled out 123 scholarships worth $871,000 to students attending 16 schools, he said.
He's trying to raise another $1.5 million by the end of May to award roughly 200 more students a grant for this school year's tuition. The goal is to cover every eligible student who's applied to his group, he said.
In his fundraising, he seeks donations from applicants. Emails to parents and administrators detail the total number of applicants from their school, how many of those have donated, and the total scholarships awarded so far to their school's students.
Davis said he's not pressuring anyone, and there's nothing wrong with seeking money from applicants. Under the budget clause creating the program, donors can't designate their money to a specific school or student. That's not what's happening, he said, but if all applicants receive a scholarship as intended, recipients will include donors.
"There's no quid pro quo," he said. "We want to help as many people as we can but the only way to do that is to get the word out."
Opponents of private-school choice have long argued the idea involves subsidizing private school education with tax dollars, which supporters have vehemently denied. But Davis is essentially using that argument to fundraise - calling donations "free money," since donors can receive a dollar-for-dollar credit, up to 60 percent of taxes they owe.
"We are not asking people to give anything - only to participate by redirecting their 2014 S.C. income taxes," he said.
Legislators may need to change some of the program's scholarship rules, but that likely won't happen until next year, said Sen. Wes Hayes, R-Rock Hill, whose Finance subcommittee oversees the K-12 budget.
He won't make any such proposals during the budget debate.
"Trying to fix things on the floor could cause more problems than good," he said.
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