Photo by Bima Rahmanda on Unsplash

As South Carolina families figure out how they will send their children back into classrooms already starved for money, teachers and safety, Gov. Henry McMaster stepped up and pulled the rug out from under them. McMaster’s proposed Safe Access to Flexible Education (SAFE) Grants are nothing more than continuation of Republican efforts to dismember struggling public schools by routing public money into private and religious school coffers. Worse, McMaster and his enablers are using the pandemic as cover for the financial shenanigans.

McMaster’s latest ploy would pipe $32 million to private schools from a $48 million pool of federal funds sent to South Carolina as part of Congress’ CARES Act to provide relief from the coronavirus pandemic. Under the guise of helping low-income families to meet federal guidelines, the millions earmarked for SAFE Grants would subsidize tuition to keep about 5,000 of the state’s 50,000 private school students enrolled at private schools, where tuitions at some elite institutions are more than $20,000 per student per year.

This is nothing but politics. It shows where the governor’s true priorities are.

Spread among the state’s 790,000 public school students, that $32 million could have only gone so far. But the cookie jar McMaster is raiding is designated for entities “most significantly impacted by the coronavirus.” It’s no wonder the state has demonstrated itself incapable of adequately funding education on sunny days when rainy day funds like this are doled out to politically connected private interests.

But let’s not give McMaster too much credit. He’s following the lead of Trump’s Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who has a long history of funnelling money out of public education. Now, she’s using the pandemic to further discredit public schools, twisting reopening plans into a threat to extract more taxpayer money.

“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 on Fox News.

Don’t forget, dozens of these private schools already got millions of dollars in Paycheck Protection Program money. Now, as educational institutions, with more federal money up for grabs, they’re back at the well. It’s a classic case of the rich getting richer, while everybody else struggles.

McMaster’s SAFE Grant program is a one-time private school bailout for now — corporate welfare habits die hard. But make no mistake, Statehouse Republicans are sure to draft legislation to budget similar allocations in 2021.

“That would be delightful if they would do that,” McMaster said when he announced the program, seeming to challenge lawmakers to make it happen when they return to Columbia.

But some decision-makers aren’t content to watch public money get squirreled away.

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

McMaster’s program is now tied up in litigation, with attorneys having to make the case that public funding of private and parochial schools is constitutionally copacetic. Unfortunately, that has also halted the $2.4 million McMaster marked for eight historically black colleges from the CARES Act — a pittance that could actually help South Carolinians disproportionately affected by this awful virus.

South Carolina leaders need to get their priorities straight when it comes to education: Properly fund education, pay teachers what they’re worth and keep public money in public schools.

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