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School Choice in South Carolina

  • School Choice

Yes! I’m so proud of the South Carolina State Legislature for working on SCHOOL CHOICE. This is an issue I’ve been promoting in Congress, but the heavy lifting ultimately needs to happen on the state level.

*** I believe important tweaks are needed to South Carolina’s efforts — more on that below — but first a little background:

Many of you know I’m very disheartened with our nation’s PUBLIC schools. Yes, some individual schools and districts perform well in testing and in various rankings. And when it comes to teachers, those I know are absolutely incredible. However…

There’s alarming evidence that South Carolina’s public schools are falling woefully behind. For example, the “National Assessment of Educational Progress” report issued by the U.S. Dept. of Education shows South Carolina students lagging behind the national average on most every math, reading, and science benchmark – a trend that’s been ongoing for YEARS.  It indicates only 32% of our 4th graders are proficient in reading, and only 22% of 8th graders are where they should be with mathematics. I think that’s atrocious!

I believe SCHOOL CHOICE can significantly help this problem.  And not just a choice of government-run schools. Instead, let education dollars follow the child, and let parents choose from among ANY accredited school, whether public or private. This will enable parents to seek the best option for their children because they now can afford to do so. Schools of all types — private, public, and charter — will naturally work towards a continuous state of improvement to attract & retain pupils. In that process, teachers will be incentivized to remain at the top of their game. And students will be expected to rise to their individual best.

So I’m thrilled the South Carolina Legislature is working on a school choice plan for our state. The SC Senate’s version of that plan would establish Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) in the amount of $6,000 per student. Parents can use ESA funds for tuition at any school of their choice. South Carolina would carefully ease into this program with yearly caps on the total number of ESAs available, but those caps would grow each year.  Overall, I think this will be excellent for our students. However…

*** I believe we should expand eligibility!! ***

In order to qualify for a school choice ESA under the SC Senate’s current plan, participating families would need to be Medicaid-eligible. For the most part, Medicaid eligibility caps at 200% of the Federal Poverty Level, which is currently $60,000 in household income for a family of four.

Think about that for a minute…

If you’re a family of four with a household income of $61,000, then your children would not qualify for this school choice program.  But the family next door earning $59,000 would!  There are SO MANY families in South Carolina who would not be eligible for this important program because of that income limit!

First responders, nurses, carpenters, electricians, plumbers, office workers, even teachers! There are COUNTLESS middle-income jobs here in South Carolina where your household income may exceed $60,000 (i.e. 200% of the poverty line) but there’s still NO WAY you could ever afford to pay to send your child to a different school.

I don’t think that’s fair… at all.

Fortunately, State Senator Wes Climer, Josh Kimbrell, and Michael Johnson have proposed an amendment to this legislation which would raise the eligibility threshold to 400% of the poverty line. That should enable many more middle-income families in South Carolina to become eligible for a school choice ESA for their children, which I believe is a fantastic idea.

This amendment is scheduled for a vote in the state Senate this coming Tuesday in Columbia. I’ve been told there are 2-3 state senators who are “on the fence.”  My hope is they’ll realize the importance of this amendment and ultimately vote for it.

If South Carolina’s going to implement ESAs for school choice, it ought to help ALL lower- and middle-income earners, not just those who happen to be Medicaid-eligible.