A year ago, the Legislature passed a one-year trial program allowing South Carolina taxpayers to redirect part of their income tax - up to $8 million across the state - to help special needs children attend private schools.
As the program starts to take shape, numbers are hard to come by as far as dollars raised, scholarships awarded and special needs children served.
This much is known: Of the $8 million in credits available this year, 447 different individuals and corporations claimed about $5.4 million, according to the S.C. Department of Revenue.
Still, lawmakers felt comfortable enough to extend the program another year, again up to $8 million, and supporters hope it ultimately becomes a permanent law, one that grows and even leads to similar credits for low-income and other students.
Detractors say while they are glad the state is doing more to help children with exceptional needs - some have received scholarships of as much as $10,000 each - they remain wary of public money being channeled, even indirectly, to private schools at a time when public schools still have great need.
83 different responses
Melanie Barton, executive director of the state's Education Oversight Committee, said between 12 percent and 15 percent of South Carolina's 750,000 school children have some sort of handicap or learning disability that would allow them to qualify for such a scholarship.
"Anything we can do to help those kids get on the better track, that's got to be the focus," she said.
Getting the program started was slow going, she said, partly because of the uncertainty over whether the program would be continued into a second year.
Neil Mellon with Access Opportunity South Carolina, a small nonprofit formed to help promote the new scholarship credits, said school districts also needed to play a role because eligible students needed to be determined under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
"Eighty-three different public school districts meant 83 different public school district responses," he said.
In Greenville, school officials made special trips to that county's private schools for exceptional needs students, but that was the best case, Barton said.
This year, lawmakers changed the program so students may be diagnosed as qualifying by a speech-language pathologist, a psychiatrist or certain other health care providers.
Different schools, different nonprofits, different stories
At Trident Academy, a Mount Pleasant private school that focuses on students with disabilities, 21 of its 54 students already have received some help through the scholarship program, said Niki Leiva, director of admissions and marketing.
"We feel that it's been incredibly beneficial," she said. "The proviso itself has been geared toward the exact profile of students that we work with.... We're really grateful on behalf of our families that this does exist and that it has been renewed for another year."
But none of the families whose children attend Miracle Academy, a private Berkeley County school, have received help, principal Teresa Middleton said.
She said the reason is probably that the schools' students did not have status as exceptional needs, or if they did, that status had expired.
This year's change should help Miracle's students who may qualify, and Middleton said she said she expects some of her students would receive scholarship help in the coming school year.
Michael F. Acquilano, a finance officer with the St. Thomas-Aquinas Scholarship Funding Organization based in Charleston, said the church is pleased that dozens of children and families have been able to benefit so far at 18 different Catholic schools in the state.
Acquilano said many St. Thomas-Aquinas donors told the office that even if the tax credit was not approved by the state, they still wanted to support the organization. "Our donors believe in the excellence of Catholic education and our moral duty to serve those students with exceptional needs," he said.
The Catholic Diocese supports the program by absorbing some of the administrative costs to maximize the money available for scholarships.
Others, such as the Palmetto Kids First Scholarship Program Inc., based in Mount Pleasant, use up to 5 percent of contributions to support the nonprofit.
They also make different pitches. A recent email from Palmetto Kids emphasized the benefit to taxpayers as well as the help for special needs children. "Most of our donors actually profit!" it said. "Yes, it sounds unbelievable, but it is the law."
Jeff Davis, a donor assistance volunteer with Palmetto Kids, said the program has been a huge success and has raised $4.2 million from about 300 donors -including one donor who gave $1.52 million.
Earlier this year, Palmetto Kids awarded $2.3 million in scholarship grants for children at 16 different schools and hopes to give 400 more scholarships to students at 23 schools for the coming year.
Barton said she will try to collect data from both scholarship organizations and schools later this year so lawmakers and other officials can see how the program is working.
"It's meeting a huge need, and I want to be able to prove that with the data," she said.
There's a requirement that scholarship funding organizations don't allow any "quid pro quo," or donors giving to ensure a specific child, such as their own, receives a scholarship. The proviso has no process by which the state can check on whether that's happening, but Barton said she has not heard of such a case.
If anything, she said, lawmakers are struggling to find the balance between overregulating and underregulating.
Political debate to continue
State Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Charleston, said he was glad the program was extended for another year, though attempts to make it a permanent law came up short.
"I would certainly be in favor of a permanent law, but there are still some who are skeptical," he said. "They say, 'You say it's going to work, but we're still uncomfortable.'... That's all I've been asking - to let me prove that it works."
Grooms said he knew the program would get off to a slow start because of the way it was constructed. "This is the first year folks will really be able to get the money," he said. "The scholarship granting organizations, they haven't had a lot of money. I'm hoping that will change next year."
State Rep. Robert Brown, D-Hollywood, said he has not heard much about the program, which he supported even though he remains concerned about state support for private schools.
"I supported, but I held my nose," he said. "I supported it because I am very concerned about the special needs kids, and I think they deserve all the help they can get."
Other detractors, such as Patrick Hayes, said the state should improve funding for public schools if it wants to improve services for special needs children.
Hayes, a third grade teacher in Charleston and director of the nonprofit advocacy group, Ed First S.C., said many see the special needs scholarship program as a way to set a precedent for state support for private schools.
"If we're really concerned about that (educating special needs students), let's take care of that in the schools set up to take care of everyone. That's where our dollars should stay," he said. "We're still underfunding our public schools. We're still under 2005 funding levels."
Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.
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