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An Immediate Legislative Response to the Court’s Education Decision
12/17/2014 3:43:35 PM

South Carolina Senator Tom Davis

South Carolina Senator Kevin Bryant
By S.C. Senators Tom Davis and Kevin Bryant

South Carolina’s Supreme Court has determined the State must provide students in eight impoverished schools districts with an opportunity to receive a “minimally adequate education.” A close look at the Court’s controversial decision offers a guide to how legislators ought to respond.

The Court did not declare that public spending on public schools insufficient. It states this point many times: “It is striking that the parties have focused narrowly on a struggle between education expenditures and education outcomes”; “It is time for the Defendants to take a broader look at the principal causes for the unfortunate performance of students … beyond mere funding”; and “[T]he evidence demonstrates an intersection of statutes and ever increasing funding streams…”

That key finding has been ignored by advocacy groups lobbying for the school boards, the school administrators, and other public school employee associations. They’ve come up with a massive new statewide property tax called the South Carolina Jobs Education and Tax Act, marketed with the clever acronym “SC JET.” A recent AP story explains it “is expected to cost hundreds of millions of dollars.”

The Court rightly noted the General Assembly has “disproportionately funded poorer counties such as the Plaintiff Districts in the past with little noticeable impact on student achievement rates.” If children in poorer school districts are not being provided an opportunity for an adequate education, then we should expand on a program that has actually worked for our most vulnerable children.

In June of 2013, the Educational Credits for Special Needs Children (ECENC) budget proviso was passed by the General Assembly, and as a result hundreds of students with physical and cognitive challenges have been able to enroll in specialized private schools.

Here’s how ECENC has worked: Individuals and corporations have made $13 million in charitable donations to scholarship funding organizations (SFOs), and SFOs have awarded tuition scholarships to students with special needs, with strict documentation of each child’s learning needs being required. Parents then select a school that best fits the needs of their child, and the choices are rich: over 80 private schools now participate in the ECENC, and more than 200 statewide are eligible.

Yes, allowing taxpayers to make $13 million in charitable donations “costs” the state, but the revenue forgone is substantially less than what traditional public schools were spending to provide inferior services to these children. In short, there’s much better value provided at substantially less cost.

One way to provide immediate relief to students in the plaintiff districts would be to expand the scope of the ECENC proviso to meet the needs of low-income families in those areas.

That proviso has already proven children’s lives can be meaningfully changed through parental decision-making, coupled with charitable giving, and there’s no reason why children now trapped in failing schools should be denied this immediate relief while the General Assembly goes about the larger task of enacting other necessary reforms.

Kevin Bryant is a State Senator from Anderson County and Tom Davis is a State Senator from Beaufort County. 


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