COLUMBIA — The House amended its budget plan Wednesday to allow scholarships for private school tuition, make it easier for veterans to attend South Carolina colleges and end the exit-exam requirement for a high school diploma.
Lawmakers approved tacking the proposals onto the House’s 2013-14 state budget plan, giving them a chance for passage this year.
A conference committee of House and Senate members will begin meeting later this week to hash out the differences in their separate spending plans.
Key differences are in designations for 4-year-old kindergarten, school buses, infrastructure and employees’ salaries.
The Senate wants to put $26 million toward phasing in an expansion of full-day, 4-year-old kindergarten for poor students statewide. The House splits that money, with half increasing vouchers through the Department of Social Services’ ABC Child Care Program.
The Senate’s budget also puts $23.5 million toward new school buses for public schools — versus the House’s $15 million — and provides state employees a 1 percent pay raise. The House spends $60 million directly on repairing bridges with load restrictions, while the Senate gives $50 million to the State Infrastructure Bank, to leverage through borrowing hundreds of millions for road and bridge work.
Both chambers’ budgets now include a limited school choice provision, inserting into the budget what proponents have unsuccessfully tried to pass through separate legislation for nearly a decade. Both allow businesses and residents to earn tax credits by donating to groups that provide students scholarships toward tuition at private schools.
The Senate plan caps the impact to the budget at $5 million and focuses solely on disabled students, while the House voted 68-48 to double the impact and also allow scholarships for poor students attending failing schools.
Opponents said such a policy shift shouldn’t be handled as a one-year budget clause. They also fear it could open the door for legislation allowing any parent to take a tax credit for private tuition paid out-of-pocket.
Both budget plans increase the so-called base student cost that primarily funds salaries. But Rep. James Smith noted it still falls nearly $600 million short of what state law calls for under a 36-year-old formula that’s adjusted annually.
“We’re failing to meet the minimum,” said Smith, D-Columbia. “And with a temporary budget proviso we’re going to take South Carolina in a very, very new direction.”
An amendment offered by Rep. Joe Daning, R-Goose Creek, aims at helping veterans who want to go to college in South Carolina. It waives the one-year residency requirement for veterans who prove they intend to make South Carolina their permanent home, allowing them to enroll immediately in a public college without paying up to $18,000 extra.
Daning’s proposed bill to do so passed the House earlier this year but is stuck in the Senate.
Another House-approved measure, which was added to its budget, removes the three-decade-old mandate that students pass the high school exit exam to earn a diploma.
Students would still be required to take the High School Assessment Program, because the results are used to determine schools and districts’ ratings under federal accountability laws. But failing wouldn’t prevent a student from graduating. Opponents said that without a direct consequence to the test, students’ scores could go down.
“You’re going to remove the reason for a lot of kids to try,” said Rep. Joe Neal, D-Hopkins.
Advocates for children with disabilities say the HSAP can be the lone hindrance for students who can earn the 24 credits needed for a South Carolina diploma. Others say it’s just not fair to assess a student’s entire education based on one test. Currently, a student who can’t pass the test receives only a certificate of attendance.
House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, D-Columbia, noted that this severely limits that student’s future.
“We take 17 years away from them, and there’s no fairness in that,” he said. “What is this kid left to do? They’re at the bottom of the barrel because they can’t pass one test.”