COLUMBIA — After a two-year hiatus, proponents of private school choice are back before the S.C. General Assembly, pushing the fourth version of legislation that would use tax credits to help parents offset the cost of private tuition.
After enduring repeated defeats in the GOP-controlled legislature, advocates of the idea are touting a redesign in the amount of the scholarship or credit and in who's eligible. They hope the efforts will pick up support for an issue that has divided the GOP - and pumped money into mudslinging primary races - since former Gov. Mark Sanford rolled out the first plan in February 2004.
South Carolinians for Responsible Government, created in 2003 following Sanford's first inaugural, says it took a different tactic in drafting the latest proposal and reached out to public education groups such as the Education Oversight Committee.
"We said we needed to totally rethink this," said Neil Mellen, spokesman for the group backed by New York real estate investor Howard Rich, who vowed in 2008 to continue the push after Sanford's departure. "It resulted in a shift in what we wanted to pursue and how."
But the sides appear to remain entrenched.
Advocates of public education say they remain fundamentally opposed to the idea of steering public money toward private schools.
"It's the same old retread. It simply has white walls this time," said Rep. Joe Neal of Hopkins, the lone Democrat on a House subcommittee set to hold its second hearing on the bill Wednesday.
The identical Senate bill is also up Wednesday for a third time by a Senate panel. Its chairman, Sen. Wes Hayes of Rock Hill, said he expects the panel to vote this week.
The basics of the latest proposal are the same as previous ones: Parents who can afford to foot the tuition upfront could claim a credit on their state income taxes, while poor parents could apply for a scholarship for their child. The people and businesses that donate toward those scholarships take the tax credit. Homeschoolers could also take a $1,000 credit per child toward the cost of instructional supplies.
But advocates say they made changes to prevent school districts' budgets from taking a hit.
One the biggest changes is in who's not eligible - at least, not immediately.
Parents of children already in private school could not take the tuition tax credit or apply for a scholarship for their own child for at least several years, if budget officers declare that student transfers are saving the state money. However, well-off parents could take a credit by donating toward another child's scholarship.
Another significant change is that the amount of the tax credit or scholarship would vary by district.
The maximum amount would be half of whatever the state spends on a public school student in that district, as determined yearly by state budget officers. Districts receive different amounts from the state because of funding formulas based on their student populations and property values. The tax credit would not touch federal or local money.
As an example, if the bill were applied to the current school year, the average maximum credit would be $2,243. The range across the state's 85 districts would be $1,588 to parents in Beaufort County and $4,621 in Marion 7, which is rural Mullins.
Tuition at the state's elite private schools can top $18,000 per student. Opponents have said the proposal is geared to well-off parents, since tuition would remain out of reach for poor students, even with a scholarship. But Mellen said the average cost of tuition across more than 300 private schools statewide is $4,400.
The executive director of the Education Oversight Committee, who met with the pro-school choice group, agreed that advocates have addressed many of the concerns about student eligibility and the level of the tuition tax credit.
South Carolinians for Responsible Government "has taken some very deliberate steps to shape legislation away from vouchers," said Jo Anne Anderson. However, she added, "I think that the fundamental opposition overwhelms the technical corrections."
Hayes said he expects the biggest areas of debate this time will involve testing, accreditation and who's eligible.
He questions whether it should be focused on helping poor families pay for tuition.
While the bill says that students in participating private schools must take some nationally recognized achievement test, and report the results, opponents contend they should be required to administer the same standardized tests taken by South Carolina's public school students. They argue that's the only fair way to compare test results.
Opponents also say private schools should have to be accredited to participate, and not just be a member of a reputable association, noting the state Association of Christian Schools doesn't require its members to be accredited.
Advocates of the bill say parents can decide what's best for their children.
"Accreditation sounds good, but it's not an end-all, be-all and doesn't necessarily mean a certain level of quality or accountability," Mellen said.