More than a dozen Charleston-area private schools received at least $8.75 million designated to stall economic fallout from the coronavirus. As educational institutions, they could receive millions more under a plan announced last week by Gov. Henry McMaster that dedicates federal aid to expand private school vouchers in South Carolina.

Since the proposal was announced, a South Carolina judge has temporarily halted the program after a lawsuit claimed it violates the state constitution over education funding for private and religious schools. A hearing is set to take place in Orangeburg County this week.

Still, McMaster’s plan mimics proposals from federal Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos to use public money for private schools — initiatives she championed for years as a billionaire activist before she took office.

The crushing economic impact of the pandemic has not spared South Carolina private schools, charged with educating about 50,000 children but also making ends meet independently. Some schools fear a drop in enrollment could strain financial reserves and state coffers as public school systems take on new students.

At least 20 private schools in the Charleston area applied for loans over $150,000 under the federal Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), designed to sustain businesses in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. The loans add up to between $8.75 million and $19.75 million, with individual loans ranging from $150,000 to $5 million. (Data made public by the Department of Treasury do not specify dollar amounts, only a range.)

In all, more than 1,500 Charleston-area businesses received PPP loans. If they retain a specific number of employees, the loans are automatically forgiven.

Announcing the program on July 20 at Hampton Park Christian School in Greenville, McMaster said private schools are receiving renewed interest because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“There are a lot that would like to join this school and others that can’t afford it,” McMaster said. “There are a lot of families working two and three jobs in order to send their children to school … and they’re paying taxes to support those public schools. So, this is the way we can support this private school and independent schools, and see to it that we are educating these children.”

In surveys of the 125 schools in the South Carolina Independent School Association, which represents about 33,000 students, leaders have reported a 4 percent to 6 percent drop in enrollment for the coming year so far, according to Spencer Jordan, the group’s executive director.

“Enrollment is the sole basis of the generation of funding for independent schools,” Jordan said. “A decline in enrollment simply means you cannot maintain the structure and organization of your school.” That could mean layoffs for teachers and staff, he said.

The $32 million set aside for private schools will come from $48 million in funds passed to the state as part of the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

The proposed Safe Access to Education (SAFE) grants would provide tuition vouchers worth up to $6,500 to students from households with an income of less than 300 percent of the federal poverty level — about $78,000 for a family of four. At $6,500 each, $32 million would buy about 5,000 one-time SAFE grants. Schools must apply and meet basic eligibility requirements to receive the grant money.

Middle and high school tuitions for the Charleston-area private schools that already received PPP funds range from $6,009 to $30,550 per student per year. Without other financial aid, families would be on the hook for tuition not covered by the vouchers. The state’s overall median household income is around $51,000.

Finding the Money

Politicians in Columbia have been locked in a fight to rework the way education is funded in South Carolina for years. Reform was teed up for the 2020 legislative session, but the coronavirus put those talks on hold.

“Right now, we’re not funding our schools at the level that is statutorily required,” said S.C. Rep. Mandy Powers Norrell, D-Lancaster. “And until we do that, we really don’t need to be taking education funds and giving them to outside entities.”

“I’m extremely disappointed to see that the GOP leadership in South Carolina is using public funds to go to private schools that could otherwise fund these voucher programs on their own,” said state Rep. Marvin Pendarvis, D-North Charleston.

“It seems like he had an opportunity to do good with this (money) and decided it should go to the few, he said. “This is just another in a long line of GOP attempts to defund education. It’s frustrating to see.”

Many Challenges

Days before he announced the expanded voucher program, McMaster drew widespread criticism over his call for all South Carolina schools to restart in-person classes during the fall. School district leaders from Charleston to Greenville have offered their own plans.

A flyer on the promotional website for South Carolina’s private school voucher program says SAFE grants help address the “many challenges” public schools face due to COVID-19.

“SAFE Grants can help alleviate the impact of COVID-19 on public schools’ resources by giving parent support in making alternative choices, saving both money and space,” the flyer reads.

That rhetoric matches DeVos’ own comments on Fox News recently.

“If schools aren’t going to reopen, we’re not suggesting pulling funding from education, but instead allowing families (to) take that money and figure out where their kids can get educated if their schools are going to refuse to open,” she said.

Norrell, who campaigned statewide against McMaster as the 2018 Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor, said she’s not surprised at the governor’s proposal.

“This, to me, is using the pandemic as a way to advance an agenda that he and many others already had to take public funds and give them to private institutions.”

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