COLUMBIA — Legislation that could take hundreds of millions from state coffers to help parents pay for private tuition will be part of next year's education debate, but it will not trump efforts to bolster the public school system, Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey said Tuesday.
A Senate panel Massey leads took no action Tuesday on his bill, which would provide eligible parents an average of $7,000 in state taxes a year to spend on their child's private education, including tuition, tutors, textbooks, and computers. It's certain to eventually advance from his GOP-majority subcommittee. The panel's other Republicans are already co-sponsors.
But there's no intention of merging that effort with, or substituting it for, a massive bill the House passed in March that attempts to modernize public education, Massey said.
"I think they're independent," the Edgefield Republican said.
The full Senate Education Committee could advance next week a pared-down version of the K-12 bill that makes changes to teacher preparation, student testing and accountability. Massey still hopes the Senate will pass that soon after the legislative session resumes next month.
But he contends that the state would still have a problem with "really poor kids stuck in underperforming schools."
Under Massey's voucher bill, children who are poor, have disabilities, are in foster care, or whose parents are in the military qualify for the payment for private education expenses.
The list of those eligible describes the vast majority of the 775,000 students in South Carolina's K-12 public schools — 86 percent, or 667,400, according to the state's economic experts, though their report acknowledges that number may be high due to students falling into more than one category.
The actual amount of the voucher would depend on where the student lives, since the payment would equal whatever the state would otherwise send the district, and per-pupil spending ranges from $4,800 in Charleston County, which receives less because of its property wealth, to $11,850 in poor, rural Allendale County.
The measure caps participation at 5 percent of those eligible the first year and 10 percent the second year before lifting the cap altogether.
That means it could divert up to $223 million of state funding from public schools the first year and $457 million the second, according to the state Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Office, which doesn't even attempt to calculate what could happen once the program's fully phased in.
Education advocates who testified Tuesday questioned how that would not interfere with efforts to increase public teacher pay amid the growing crisis of vacancies in the classroom and other spending called for by the larger effort, such as expanding access to summer school.
On Wednesday, a separate Senate panel will continue studying how to overhaul the state's byzantine funding formulas for public schools, though senators have already said that issue's too complicated to take up next year. Opponents of the voucher bill noted legislators haven't fully funded the state's oldest and main formula since the Great Recession.
The voucher bill's backers contend actual participation would be tiny and won’t come at the expense of students choosing to remain in public schools. At the same time, they insist the bill could actually save districts money if large numbers of students leave, as that would allow the district to employ fewer teachers, for example.
Former Kershaw County Superintendent Frank Morgan said that "just doesn't make any sense." If a single classroom loses one or two students, as proponents predict, that won't cut overhead costs, he said at Tuesday's hearing.
"If I lose 50 students and they're spread across the district, my costs aren't going down $325,000," he said. "I'm not going to cut five teachers. The practical reality on the ground is, unless you lose them all in one place and cut costs in one school, it's not going to happen."
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, which represented the first major victory in South Carolina for advocates of private school choice.
Proponents have long argued the aid to parents should not be described as vouchers. But Massey's bill differs from previous proposals by providing a direct payment to parents from the state, the very definition of a voucher, as described by national advocates who have traveled to South Carolina to support the bill. The state's current, capped program awards tax credits to parents who pay for tuition upfront and to donors of scholarships for poor children with disabilities.