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Gregory co-sponsors school bill

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By Reece Murphy

State Sen. Greg Gregory of Lancaster County is a co-sponsor of a new school choice bill that mirrors a similar bill approved by House Republicans last year, that later died in the Senate.

S.279 is the latest in a series of such bills over the past decade. Supporters say such bills would offer parents more say in their children’s educations, though critics maintain the bills would take money away from public education.

“It’s a bill that’s been around for a number of sessions, but we’ve never had much success in advancing it,”

Gregory said. “It is designed to be an alternative method for parents to educate their children through agencies other than public schools, such as private schools or home schools, by granting tax credits to help with the costs.

“There is a school system in place, but it doesn’t work well for everyone,” he said. “Some of the public schools we have (in South Carolina) are quite bad, and students who don’t have any alternatives are trapped in those bad schools.”

Like its predecessor, S. 279 would allow tax deductions of up to $4,000 per child to cover the cost of private schools, including religious schools, $2,000 for the cost of home schooling and $1,000 for parents who want to send their children to a public school outside their home district.

The bill would also allow tax credits for individuals and corporations that donate to nonprofits providing grants to low-income and special-needs students.

Tax credits for donations that go to free/reduced lunch students and those whose families receive Medicaid, however, are capped at $15 million annually, with $10 million annually for special-needs students.

To be eligible for the deductions or tax credits, accountability provisions in the bill require parents to send their children to schools accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, the S.C. Association of Christian Schools or the S.C. Independent Schools Association.

The bill requires approved schools to offer a curriculum that follows the state’s diploma requirements and that students take national achievement or state standardized tests. The bill also specifies that no state agency may regulate the educational programs at the schools.

Gregory said that he’s well aware of the arguments against school choice, especially when it comes to the claim that it will take money from public education.

“I would say, how does a tax credit that is going to reduce revenue for the entire budget affect education? The answer is, it doesn’t,” Gregory said. “Giving parents a choice, that’s really the essence of it.”
Educators disagree.

“Sending public tax dollars to private entities is a serious concern, especially since public education in our state has only been fully funded eight times in the past 36 years,” Lancaster County School District Superintendent Dr. Gene Moore said.

“Additionally, our state’s public schools are subject to a great deal of accountability and oversight, while private schools are not held to the same accountability standards and requirements,” he said.

S.C. School Boards Association spokeswoman Debbie Elmore said school choice bills such
as S.279 are “unaffordable, unaccountable and unproven.”

Elmore said educators believe taking money out of the state’s general fund means less money on hand for funding schools.

Even though the money may not come directly from Lancaster County High School’s budget, she said, it does come from a general fund that is used to pay for both public schools and other state services.

Elmore derided provisions allowing for the creation of “nonprofit scholarship funding organizations,” calling them a “middle man” for a “back-door voucher.”

She also took issue with the bill’s accountability provisions, which she said are carefully worded to allow private and home schools to use less rigorous, and less widely accepted achievement tests common among such schools and to escape state testing and curriculum requirements.

“The bill is unaffordable; how can we consider a bill that is going to take money out of state funds? There’s no accountability, and it’s unproven,” Elmore said. “If you look at the research done in other states, the studies show that it does not impact student achievement.

“So why would you then want to invest public dollars in something that is unaccountable and unproven?” she said. “It’s just a way to help families who already send their children to private schools.”

Gregory dismisses much of educators’ reactions to the bill as the result of school boards and educators getting “whipped into a frenzy” every time the school choice bills come up.

Gregory said he believes it’s only natural that people look at issues through the “prism of their own experience,” but said it’s important to remember that while Lancaster County may have good schools, there are plenty of others that don’t.

In addition to offering parents a choice and providing options for students in bad schools, Gregory said, the bill also gives parents a way to control how their education dollars are spent.

“With that being said, the prospect of the bill passing is probably about the same as it’s always been, and that’s slim,” Gregory said.

“I think it’s an important issue to keep out front and to debate,” he said. “Public education works well for many students, but not for all students, so we’ll continue trying to come up with an alternative that would give assistance to students whose needs aren’t being met.”

Contact reporter Reece Murphy at (803) 283-1151