COLUMBIA — State Sen. Robert Ford sees a "clear-cut victory" for his efforts to give children tax dollars to pay for private schools in a state law that the U.S. Supreme Court found unconstitutional in 1968.
The nation's high court affirmed a lower court's decision that a South Carolina law offering tuition grants, put in historical context, "clearly reveals that the purpose, motive and effect of the act is to unconstitutionally circumvent" the 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education to desegregate public schools.
After all these years, however, the law never was repealed, Ford said Monday, and he wants parents to take advantage of it. The Charleston Democrat is expected to raise the issue on the Senate floor today.
Racism as a motivating factor might be the perception of the state statute, Ford said, but nowhere in the law does it make references to a child's race. According to the statute, every child is eligible and entitled to a state scholarship grant, said Ford, who is black.
So unless someone tries to have the statute repealed, Ford said he can stop pushing for the Legislature to approve his plan to offer tax credits worth an average of about $2,500 for private school tuition. His bill, which is before the Senate Education Committee, also calls for the creation of a scholarship fund to collect charitable donations to help cover more tuition costs.
"Are they going to repeal that law or are they going to keep it on the books? If they keep it on the books, that means my efforts are over," Ford said. "Parents should take advantage of it. It's a clear-cut victory."
Not exactly, according to the state Superintendent of Education Jim Rex.
"With all due respect to Senator Ford, this was decided 40 years ago," Rex said. "The U.S. Supreme Court saw this law precisely for what it was, an attempt to make an end-run around Brown v. Board of Education. Anybody who tried to enforce it today would be violating an order from the highest court in the land.
"And even if it weren't clearly illegal, how could it be a victory for African-American children if we were to resurrect a segregationist law that was designed to keep those very children separate and unequal? That would be an affront to everyone who fought for public schools to be open to all children, and it's one reason why the idea of using public dollars to subsidize private school tuitions still raises red flags today."
Ford argued that the court found that the problem was with the state Department of Education's application of the law all those decades ago. Nothing written in the statute is discriminatory, he said.
"The General Assembly is left with a bad predicament: take it off books or enforce it," Ford said.
Since Ford became the new champion for the school choice movement in South Carolina earlier this year, the matter has become increasingly divisive in the black community. It remains controversial among public school advocates.
Ford maintains that minority and poor children are who he is looking to protect and provide opportunity. Ford said Monday that it was in 1962, the same year the Legislature passed the statute, that he was arrested for the first of 73 times fighting for civil rights.