Ellen Wilson is gambling for her son’s education. With a cloud of uncertainty hanging over a South Carolina scholarship program that helps special-needs students attend private schools, Wilson and her husband went ahead and enrolled their 8-year-old son Trey in an expensive Mount Pleasant school for children with ADHD and dyslexia.
Class started Aug. 18 at Trident Academy, and a semester’s tuition can cost up to $14,400. The Wilsons might not find out if they qualify for the scholarship until Sept. 15.
Wilson and her husband scraped together the money and wrote a check, hoping to qualify for financial assistance from the newly reinvented Exceptional SC state-backed scholarship fund. But there’s no guarantee they’ll receive any relief, and a second semester might break the bank.
Wilson started picking up extra hours at work, and her husband teaches classes on weekends now. “You can’t even think about college or retirement when you’ve got a kid that needs special services,” Wilson said.
Frustrated with the help they were receiving in public schools, parents of special-needs children got some relief in 2013 when the state started subsidizing millions of dollars in tax credits for a handful of private scholarship funding organizations, or SFOs. Some SFOs focused on religious schools; the largest, Palmetto Kids First, raised millions of dollars in a matter of weeks and helped families across the state afford schools such as Trident Academy.
This summer, state lawmakers did away with the old SFO program after a state Department of Revenue investigation alleged that Palmetto Kids First was offering “quid pro quo” scholarships to families who donated to the fund. The Legislature gave administration of the newly rebranded Exceptional SC scholarship to the Revenue Department, with guidance from a legislatively appointed board.
The decision came in the middle of the summer. After state officials scrambled to put up a fundraising website, the fund started accepting donations July 5. As of Thursday, with the school year underway, donors had given only $4.4 million out of a possible $10 million in tax-deductible donations.
Meanwhile, Exceptional SC Board Chairman Thomas Persons said he expects to receive about $9 million to $10 million worth of scholarship applications. By state law, families like the Wilsons who received SFO scholarships last year will be given first priority. Newly applying families might not receive a penny.
Persons said he understands the predicament families find themselves.
“I think parents are very creative. When it comes to educating their children, they’re going to find a way, and I hope we can make it much, much easier for them going forward,” Persons said.
For donors, the tax credit is a screaming good deal. When the dollar-for-dollar credit is combined with federal tax deductions, some wealthy donors can save up to $1.42 on their tax bill for every $1 they give.
But the newly appointed board, which includes the head of Trident Academy and some previous SFO leaders, is making slow progress on fundraising. The fund accepted nearly $3 million in the first week, but donations have slowed to a trickle since then.
Jeff Davis, founder of Palmetto Kids First, said he thinks big corporate donors are spooked because the fund has entered murky legal territory. Davis’ organization has sent out email blasts to past donors detailing a barrage of unfulfilled public-records requests it submitted to Exceptional SC. He’s demanding proof of the fund’s IRS tax-deductible status, alleging the fund’s new state leadership makes it a legally unprecedented hybrid of a voucher program and a tax-credit fund.
“Children are being hurt because of shenanigans in Columbia,” Davis said.
Revenue Department spokeswoman Bonnie Swingle said fundraising is up to the board, and her department just manages the tax credits.
At Miracle Academy Preparatory School, a nonprofit Christian school in Berkeley County that offers help for students with some learning disabilities, Principal Teresa Middleton said families are leaving amid the uncertainty. They can’t afford books and tuition while they wait for a scholarship check that might never come.
“We’re starting the school year in obscurity,” Middleton said. “We don’t know what’s going on. We don’t know who’s going to get funded.”
Families around the state are facing the same dilemma. In Sumter, Wanda Little Fenimore spent the summer weighing options for her 7-year-old granddaughter Daisy, who has developmental delays and some speech problems. Unsatisfied with the help Daisy would receive through an Individualized Education Program at her public school, Fenimore tried applying for a scholarship to send her to Thomas Sumter Academy, where smaller classroom sizes could mean more one-on-one attention.
But after learning the private school doesn’t qualify for the scholarship and weighing her options elsewhere, she gave up and decided to fight for her daughter’s education in the public school. It’s exhausting. But she can’t wait around for a month to find out if she’s getting help.
“I essentially just gave up on that,” Fenimore said.