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SC judge temporarily blocks Gov. McMaster's decision to fund private school vouchers

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South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster speaks at Hampton Park Christian School in Greenville on Monday, July 20, 2020, to announce the Safe Access to Flexible Education grant program. File/Conor Hughes/Staff

COLUMBIA — A South Carolina judge has temporarily blocked Gov. Henry McMaster's decision to use $32 million of federal coronavirus aid to fund vouchers that help parents afford private K-12 tuition in the upcoming school year.

Skyler Hutto, an Orangeburg attorney and the son of Democratic state Sen. Brad Hutto, argued in a court filing that McMaster's plan violates a portion of the state constitution preventing the government from funding private or religious education.

Orangeburg County Circuit Judge Edgar Dickson granted Hutto's request for a temporary restraining order Wednesday morning until arguments can be heard in court, expected next week.

In response to the decision, McMaster's spokesman Brian Symmes said, "Working families in South Carolina are struggling to make ends meet during this pandemic and every parent should have the opportunity to choose the educational instruction that best suits their child’s needs."

"Federal coronavirus relief cannot, and should not, be denied to any citizen in need," Symmes added.

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Charleston's spokeswoman Maria Aselage argued the court order "hurts low- and middle-income parents who want to continue sending their children to the school of their choice."

"Every child deserves the opportunity to learn in the educational environment that best suits his or her needs, whether it is a public, private, or religious school," Aselage said.

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But the decision received support from several Democratic state lawmakers and U.S. Rep. Joe Cunningham, D-Charleston, who tweeted that public funds should go to public schools.

Under McMaster's plan, announced earlier this week at Hampton Park Christian School in Greenville, an estimated 5,000 students would be eligible for one-time grants of up to $6,500, which is roughly what the state spends, on average, per student in a public school classroom.

The $32 million program would take up about two-thirds of the money from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act sent directly to the Governor’s Office for education relief. McMaster had sole authority over how to spend it, unlike the $1.9 billion to reimburse COVID-19-related expenses, which the Legislature insisted on controlling.

Hutto filed the lawsuit on behalf of Thomasena Adams, a public school educator who lives in Orangeburg. He cited a section of the state constitution that reads: "No money shall be paid from public funds nor shall the credit of the State or any of its political subdivisions be used for the direct benefit of any religious or other private educational institution."

The lawsuit also points to a 1971 S.C. Supreme Court ruling that found using public funds to provide tuition grants to students attending religious institutions violates the state constitution.

However, that ruling came two years before the state constitution was amended, replacing a ban on direct or indirect funding for religious institutions with a ban on public funding only for the "direct benefit" of religious or private schools.

Follow Jamie Lovegrove on Twitter @jslovegrove.

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