COLUMBIA, S.C. — South Carolina's governor signed a bill into law Thursday that will eventually allow up to 15,000 students in the state to use public money for private schools.
The bill signing capped a nearly 20-year effort that ran through three governors, four House speakers and five education superintendents in a state where Republicans have been consolidating and expanding their power.
“I pushed the notion that parents ought to the the drivers of their education, That education shouldn't be divided up over who lives in the best ZIP code and who doesn't," said Republican Sen. Larry Grooms, who has been at the forefront of the effort.
Starting in the fall of 2024, the law will establish what are called education scholarship accounts. Parents and guardians can get up to $6,000 a year to pay for tuition, transportation, supplies or technology at either private schools or public schools outside their district.
It starts with 5,000 openings for students whose families make about $60,000 or less. Within three years, the eligibility is to be capped at 15,000 students, or about 2% of South Carolina’s school age population, for families making around $120,000 or less.
But before the program can get underway, it likely must survive a court challenge. The South Carolina constitution prohibits using public money to benefit private educational institutions.
Supporters said this bill gets around that issue because the money comes out of the general fund instead of money assigned to schools. And it's to go into education savings accounts instead of directly to private schools.
For 20 years, opponents have fought off vouchers attempts by saying parents won't be able to easily determine if private schools are helping their children. They said the idea takes money from public schools in a state where the schools aren't fully funded.
Republican South Carolina Education Superintendent Ellen Weaver, who was elected in November in part for pushing for vouchers, school choice and other ways to get more private entities into public education, said this is the future of learning,
“The opponents of this bill will try to tell you it is an either/or choice. This is a both/and,” Weaver said. "We are supporting incredible public education. We are supporting the students who will benefit from this program.”
Republican Gov., Henry McMaster signed the bill, building on the efforts of former Govs. Mark Sanford and Nikki Haley.
Sanford and Haley weren't present in McMaster's office for the signing. However, House Speaker Murrell Smith cribbed one of Haley's favorite phrases during her six years in office, remarking on the occasion: “It's a great day in South Carolina for parents and children."