Voucher hearing

Shaunette Parker, board chairwoman of the Second Baptist Christian Preparatory School in Aiken, testifies Thursday, April 4, in support of a bill that would give parents state tax money to use toward private school tuition and other education expenses including textbooks, computers and tutors. Seanna Adcox/Staff  

COLUMBIA — With a bill attempting to overhaul public education stalled in the Senate, advocates for helping parents pay for private tuition with state taxes officially renewed their push at the Statehouse on Thursday.

Voucher supporters, whose efforts have fallen short repeatedly over the last 15 years, are stepping up just as time is running out this year for the General Assembly to improve a K-12 system that has fallen to the nation's bottom.

"If we don’t do it this year, I don’t know if we ever will," Gov. Henry McMaster told a Rotary Club in Summerville on Wednesday.

Waffling on an overhaul could result in South Carolina losing companies to other states, said McMaster, who has made education a priority this session. 

"If we ever develop a reputation for being weak in education in places and not recognizing and doing something about it, that will be a disaster," he said. "That is our weak point. That is what we have to fix."

Education reform efforts become even harder next year, when every legislator is up for re-election. 

In the aftermath of The Post and Courier's Minimally Adequate series last fall, which laid out how public schools are failing to prepare students for college or the modern workforce and the economic consequences, legislative leaders in both parties promised to make improving public schools their top job this session. Business leaders got behind the effort, too. 

The year began with optimism that, after decades of study panels that produced shelved reports, a revamp was within reach. 

But a massive bill introduced by House Speaker Jay Lucas, which would force changes not only in K-12 schools but also technical colleges and universities, quickly received a stunning level of pushback from teachers in the growing SC for Ed social media group. Despite their demands that legislators start over, the House passed the bill overwhelmingly a month ago, after making some changes.

Those included removing a section teachers feared would eventually tie their salary increases to student achievement and guaranteeing them 30 minutes duty-free daily. 

A Senate bill, which was identical to Lucas' when filed, remains in an education subcommittee that's been plodding through it section by section since January. The panel did what many teachers demanded — and what the Senate is known for doing: Slowing down the process. 

Plus, the Senate has removed several key provisions from the House version, setting up potentially difficult negotiations to settle differences in the bill.

Senate Education Committee Chairman Greg Hembree said he hopes his panel will advance a reform plan to the full committee during a hearing next Wednesday, which will be its 15th on the proposal including four after-hours hearings held across the state. 

"This is going to be the speak-now-or-forever-hold-your-peace meeting," said Hembree, R-North Myrtle Beach. "It's time to move it."

It could still reach McMaster's desk this year, he said. 

"There's a path, but it’s very narrow. I’m still determined to give it as hard a try as I can," Hembree said. "It’s going to take some luck because it's so easy to derail legislation in the Senate." 

Just five weeks remain in this year's legislative session. The Senate will spend at least one of those weeks debating its budget plan for the fiscal year beginning July 1 — which includes a pay raise for teachers. Budget negotiations between the two chambers will take up another good chunk of time. 

Lucas also urges action this year.

"We absolutely believe this is the year," his chief of staff Michael Anzelmo said Thursday. "We don't see any reason why there needs to be any further delay."

Amid the slowdown, the Koch-backed group Americans for Prosperity launched a TV, radio and direct mail advertising campaign Thursday advocating for school-choice vouchers.

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The ads back legislation that would provide parents more than $5,000 to spend on their child's private education, including tuition, tutors, textbooks and computers. Parents would receive the money — equal to the state's per-pupil spending in that district, which ranges from about $5,300 per student in Charleston County to $10,300 in poor, rural McCormick County — in quarterly chunks through either an online account or debit card-like system. 

Those eligible to receive what the bill calls "equal opportunity education scholarships" include students with disabilities, children in foster care, the children of military personnel, and poor students — which describes 64 percent, or 540,000, of South Carolina's K-12 public school students.

The measure caps participation at 5 percent of those eligible the first year and 10 percent the second year before lifting the cap altogether, though its backers contend actual participation would be tiny and won't come at the expense of students remaining in the classroom. State economists have not provided any estimates on the proposal's impact. 

The advertising campaign coincided with a Senate hearing on the bill, where advocates traveled from The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C, and EdChoice, a voucher program based in Indianapolis, to testify. Earlier this week, former U.S. Sen. Jim Demint of South Carolina, who also formerly led The Heritage Foundation, urged legislators to support the measure.   

"If you're looking for comprehensive reform, school choice needs to be part of it," said Oran Smith, a senior fellow with the Palmetto Promise Institute, a think tank DeMint founded with campaign money when he left the Senate. 

The renewed push comes 15 years after former Gov. Mark Sanford first launched the effort that divided the GOP and took center stage in every education debate throughout his tenure. The bill would greatly expand the state's limited scholarship program for children with disabilities, first approved in 2014.  

The bill has no chance this year. The panel took testimony but no action Thursday. Any bill that doesn't advance from one chamber to the other by Thursday must receive a supermajority vote just to be considered by the receiving chamber. That's a high hurdle for even non-contentious legislation.

But the voucher bill could be taken up next year.  

Educators urged senators Thursday to stay focused on improving public schools. 

State Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, who has long fought school choice measures, said the idea's renewal helps explain the Legislature's inaction on education reform over the years. 

"We are polar opposites on what reform actually is and what it will do," the Orangeburg Democrat said. "Years ago, when we opened the door to vouchers by labeling it 'special needs,' I was concerned this would result in a draining of resources on public schools. I fear that might occur if this happens." 

Follow Seanna Adcox on Twitter at @seannaadcox_pc.

Assistant Columbia bureau chief

Adcox returned to The Post and Courier in October 2017 after 12 years covering the Statehouse for The Associated Press. She previously covered education for The P&C. She has also worked for The AP in Albany, N.Y., and for The Herald in Rock Hill.