COLUMBIA, S.C. — After ten days of debate, South Carolina senators approved a bill that would create education savings accounts to allow low-income and middle class families to send their kids to private schools.
Under the proposal, up to 15,000 students would get $6,000 in state money for private school tuition and other costs like transportation, internet, and books.
The program could cost up to $90 million a year, depending on how many students participate and how much lawmakers allocate in the state budget.
"The underlying bill is going to unlock an extraordinary amount of opportunity for families across the state," said Sen. Wes Climer (R-York).
During Tuesday's debate, Republicans expanded voucher eligibility from Medicaid eligible families, to eventually 400% of the federal poverty level, which is about $120,000 a year for a family of four.
"You're not talking about poor folks. The whole fundamental question is to expand the opportunity to put public money into private schools," said Sen. Ronnie Sabb.
They also cut eligibility for kids who need specialized instruction who don't meet the income requirement and voted down banning schools receiving the money from discriminating based on disabilities and religion.
"We made it crystal clear you have to comply with federal law, but this bill, this funding program, it’s not a civil rights program it does not expand the rights of students or anybody else," said Sen. Greg Hembree (R- Horry).
Democrats like Sen. Brad Hutto and Sen. Mike Fanning disagreed with this.
"We’re saying up front your child can’t participate because we’ve got to protect the institutions ability to financially offer services and your kid needs more services than the private school can offer because they’re disabled," said Fanning.
Some lawmakers questioned whether the law would even be constitutional.
“The ESA approach is relatively new, relatively untested and involves the expenditure of public money," said Sen. Tom Davis.
“Our constitution specifically says we cannot give government money to a private religious or private nonreligious school it’s as clear as day," said Fanning.
Other efforts to expand the number of vouchers given out each year and requiring schools to provide transportation and free lunches did not pass.
In his budget proposal earlier this month, Gov. Henry McMaster called on lawmakers to allocated $25 million for a school choice program.