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Look for another education battle in 2022 as key Republican leaders push a bill that would siphon public education dollars to private schools under the guise of “education freedom.”

Erickson

S.C. Rep. Shannon Erickson, R-Beaufort, recently sent an email through the Palmetto Promise Institute to push H. 3976, a bill she introduced in February to create “education scholarship accounts” for tens of thousands of early reading program or special needs students. Anyone in the proposed program would get about $5,000 a year in an online savings account to use for a student’s education.

A 2020 version of the bill, which proposed a similar mechanism limited to special needs students, was projected to cost up to $456 million a year for about 67,000 eligible students. The new version could dramatically increase the number of participants at a much-increased fiscal impact, Statehouse insiders said.

Erickson didn’t respond to several inquiries. But in the email, she wrote the measure, which included House Speaker Jay Lucas and 62 other mostly GOP members as co-sponsors, “would empower low- and middle-income families with control and choice over their child’s education in a way never before seen in South Carolina. It would position the Palmetto State as a leader in education freedom and set the stage for a student-centered education revolution.”

But advocates at the S.C. Education Association say such rhetoric offers nice-sounding buzzwords that mask a dangerous potential shift to education vouchers that would steer millions of public school dollars away from school districts for private schools.

SCEA Executive Director Todd Jaeck said Erickson’s bill mirrors attempts in other states to dismantle public schools.

Jaeck

“By pulling state funds into separate accounts and expanding eligibility — the money leaves the local public school and ‘follows’ the student, even if the student returns to the local public school where educators proudly accept and educate all of South Carolina’s children,” he said.

“Cloaked in language like ‘choice’ and ‘scholarship,’ this bill attempts to create the illusion that it is providing opportunity. However, the reality of the bill removes opportunity from many children by taking sorely needed funds from the schools and institutions that must accept, welcome and educate all children.”

Oran Smith, senior fellow at the conservative Palmetto Promise Institute, recently told Statehouse Report that Erickson’s proposal was part of a national trend. Over the last two years, 18 states have added or extended similar programs that are working successfully, he said.

State Rep. Jason Elliott, R-Greenville, said the measure would enable families to obtain an online savings account that  the parent or guardian would administer. Funding would be around $5,000 per student per year and, he said, could go to private or independent school tuition, books, transportation or other school services. 

While the bill already has a majority of House members as supportive, it still faces opposition.

Patrick Kelly, director of governmental affairs for the Palmetto State Teachers Association, said it had accountability problems, such as administrative costs and safeguards to ensure equal access. He also noted that “school choice” was available throughout the state through charter schools.

Last year, the S.C. Supreme Court ruled against an attempt by GOP Gov. Henry McMaster to steer $32 million in federal pandemic aid dollars to fund private school scholarships.

The battle over the measure is expected to get started in January when the legislative session resumes.

Reporter Al Dozier of Columbia contributed to this story.

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