South Carolina Leading the Pack?

One of the peculiar facts about the school choice movement is its relative weakness in the country’s most conservative region, the South.  Among the eleven states of the old South, only Florida receives a grade higher than C for its charter school laws from the Center for Education Reform (CER). And arguably the most conservative of southern states, South Carolina, receives a middling C in contrast to deep blue California’s A.  South Carolina has only 45 charter schools enrolling less than 13,000 students.  According to CER charter schools have “highly contentious” relationships with school districts and receive only $3,400 per-pupil compared to $11,400 for traditional public school students.

Somewhat surprisingly, then, South Carolina is on the cusp of leapfrogging most of the competition by passing one of the most ambitious pieces of school choice legislation in the country.  Called the South Carolina Education Opportunity Act (SCEOA), the legislation would provide tax credits to parents choosing to send their children to private school, extend smaller tax credits to homeschooling families, and provide scholarships for low-income students to attend private schools.  The scholarships would be dispensed by Student Scholarship Organizations.

Pointing to the success of Florida’s Tax Credit Scholarship Program (see “Does Competition Improve Schools?”), the bill’s supporters contend that it would improve student achievement and save money.   The CATO Institute has already weighed in, saying that the bill would “do a better job” than similar school choice programs in other states.

While one would hope that the legislature would be most interested in the academic gains generated by the bill, its budgetary effects might be what gets it through the legislature.  The state has been hit particularly hard by the recession, and over the past few years has had to rely on furloughs, reductions in local aid, and various cuts to balance the budget. The scholarships and tax credits could not exceed half of the state’s spending per student, which averages around $5,000.  (The remainder comes from the federal government and would be unaffected by the program.) Thus, for every student taking advantage of a scholarship and tax credit, the state would save $2,500.  Regardless of the legislators’ motivations, the bill’s passage would undoubtedly be welcome news to parents who simply want a better education for their kids.

Should the bill pass, opponents of school choice will no doubt be waiting with knives sharpened and a battalion of attorneys. That makes the U.S. Supreme Court’s pending decision in Arizona Christian School Tuition Organization v. Winn even more important.  Arizona passed a scholarship program funded by tax credits and subsequently found itself sued by the ACLU (and nominal plaintiffs that it rounded up) because many of the scholarship organizations were religious and sent recipients to religious schools.  If the Court sides with Arizona and the Obama Administration, which to its credit defended Arizona’s program and said that the ACLU and its plaintiffs shouldn’t even have standing to sue, it would go a long way toward insulating the SCOA from a legal challenge.

-Joshua Dunn

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