New rules aid education for special needs

Some students at Trident Academy in Mount Pleasant have received help through the S.C. Educational Credit for Exceptional Needs Children.Pphotographed Friday June 27, 2014. Grace Beahm/Staff

BY RICK REAMES III and

THOMAS E. PERSONS, SR.

Educating students with special needs is costly and complex, and one size rarely fits all. South Carolina’s Educational Credit for Exceptional Needs Children (ECENC) was enacted to help students with special needs attend approved, credentialed private schools. Starting in 2013, families sought grants awarded by Scholarship Funding Organizations (SFOs) to offset school costs. For the most challenged students at the most specialized schools, these costs can be staggering.

The initial ECENC authorized state tax credits for donations made to several SFOs provided they met specific charitable criteria. Although every SFO was free to serve any eligible student at any eligible school, some participation began to evolve according to sectarian lines. This inadvertently led to an uneven distribution of the ECENC benefits, and in some cases, worked to subsidize schools rather than supporting individual special needs students choosing freely among them. Still the proper actions and achievements of some SFOs are to be applauded. These SFOs emphasize the program’s value and serve as a model for how best to serve the special needs children of South Carolina moving forward.

In June, state lawmakers proposed specific, substantive reforms, seeking to return to the spirit and intent of the ECENC — equal access for eligible students at all eligible schools. First, they raised the maximum per-student grant to $11,000. Second, they increased the sum of tax credits reserved for grant donations from $8 million to $10 million. Third, legislators guaranteed last year’s ECENC students were provided first priority for this year’s grants, offering predictability to families and continuity of educational support for students. Fourth, state lawmakers authorized the creation of a single, statewide SFO — Exceptional SC — to serve all eligible students at all approved schools and to ensure a more transparent and direct route to earn tax credits.

Formally organized by the South Carolina Department of Revenue (SCDOR) this summer, Exceptional SC is governed by a board of directors representing the state’s private school associations including the Diocese of Charleston, South Carolina Independent Schools Association and the Palmetto Association of Independent Schools.

Thanks to the hard work and dedication of these board members, more than $3.75 million in donations has already been received, along with more than 700 applications. Board members are active in encouraging more donations and have established a streamlined online application process affording all families equal access to fast and fair consideration of their applications, refocusing the ECENC on the end user.

The board will announce a first round of approved applicants on or before September 15, 2016. Incumbent applicants must complete this year’s application and submit all required documentation by September 1, 2016, for priority consideration within this first round. Additional approvals will be made as more donations are received.

Individuals and corporations who pay South Carolina taxes can donate directly to Exceptional SC. Those contributions are eligible for state income tax credits on a dollar per dollar basis, for up to 60 percent of the donor’s total state liability. Statewide, $10 million in credits are available on a first come, first served basis. Information about how to donate as well as how to apply is available on Exceptional SC’s website at exceptionalsc.org.

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These legislative refinements and the creation of Exceptional SC were necessary and important to preserve the program’s integrity and help to ensure accountability and sustainability. The ECENC can serve families of some of the most challenged and educationally expensive students in South Carolina. That fuels innovation and specialization in education. In its revised form, the ECENC, through Exceptional SC, will provide that support in an effective, transparent and fair manner, leaving independent schools free to focus their efforts on specialized instruction and services. To do so, best serves our most vulnerable children and their families.

To learn more about Exceptional SC including how to apply and donate, please visit exceptionalsc.org.

Rick Reames III is director of the S.C. Department of Revenue.

Thomas E. Persons Sr., is president & CEO of S.C. Technology Alliance and serves as chairman of South Carolina’s Educational Credit for Exceptional Needs Children Fund / Exceptional SC.