This afternoon, a S.C. House subcommittee will meet to review H.3976. This bill would allow students living in households at or below 200% of the federal poverty level to apply for “education scholarship accounts,” or ESAs, which would be funded by taking about $6,500 per student from the public school district a student is zoned to attend. The funds could then be spent on a range of educational services, including private school tuition.
There are many reasons H.3976 would be bad public policy. In the first year, this new entitlement program would remove more than $32 million from public schools; that number could exceed $500 million per year by 2025. And based on the S.C. Supreme Court’s recent ruling in Adams v. McMaster, the legislation also could violate our state constitution.
Supporters call education scholarship accounts a path to increased “educational choice” in our state. This is an argument I'm very familiar with after serving in the policy office of the U.S. Department of Education in 2016 and 2017. During that time, I heard countless arguments in favor of vouchers and ESAs as tools to expand “choice” or “educational freedom.” Regardless of the rhetoric, the program that would be created by H.3976 would not lead to greater choice for South Carolina students; it is simply one step toward our state’s privatization of public education.
True educational choice must meet three criteria: affordability, accessibility and accountability. The proposed education scholarship accounts fail on each count.
For individuals to have a real choice, they have to be able to afford all options. A $6,500 ESA will not enable all S.C. families to send their children to private schools, some of which have annual tuition bills in excess of $20,000. To truly provide choice for all families, educational options must have the same price tag required by our state constitution for public schools: free. In addition, the loss of funding this bill would create for public schools would lead to diminished choice for students within those schools, as districts will be required to cut positions or programs to balance budgets.
Individuals also lack choice if options are not accessible. Due to their First Amendment freedom of association, private schools may deny admission to students on the basis of their disability status, religion or sexual orientation. Public dollars should only go to programs available to all S.C. families.
Finally, true choice requires adequate information. In our public schools, such information comes through our school accountability system. Recently, the state’s Education Oversight Committee has argued for the need for all students to take common assessments to provide “easily comparable information” across schools, so surely no member of the EOC would favor a bill that does not require this type of data.
However, under H.3976, private schools receiving education scholarship account funds would not have to administer the same assessments given in public schools. This means families couldn't make an informed comparison between educational options, and the public wouldn't be able to ensure that public funds are being spent wisely and effectively.
In spite of the shortcomings of H.3976, we should not abandon efforts to expand the real educational choice programs that currently work for thousands of families in our state. Many districts have robust intradistrict choice programs, and these could be enhanced with more state funding for student transportation. Our state also has a growing network of public charter schools that are fully affordable, accessible and accountable. To enhance choice further, the state should return to 2019 efforts to revise the state educational funding formula, a formula that currently does not include dedicated annual funding for public charter schools.
As our state works to expand educational opportunities for all students, choice has an important role to play — but only through programs that deliver options instead of privatization.
Patrick Kelly is the director of governmental affairs for the Palmetto State Teachers Association and has taught in South Carolina schools since 2005.