South Carolina House votes to expand voucher program. Its fate in Senate is less clear


COLUMBIA (AP) — Republicans in the South Carolina House gave key approval Wednesday to a bill expanding a program allowing parents to spend taxpayer money on private and home-school education even as a pilot plan is just starting and the state's highest court is considering whether it is legal.
After the 69-32 vote, the bill faces one more routine approval before heading to the Senate, where leadership has been more dubious about going ahead with the court case hanging over the education voucher program. But Senate leadership hasn't shut the door on expansion.
The opposition was almost entirely Democrats, joined by two Republicans.
"I might plant a few acres of something to see how it's going to work. But I don't think I want to go and experiment with my entire operation and not know what the results might be," said Democratic Rep. Russell Ott, whose family owns a farm in St. Matthews.
The General Assembly passed what it calls the education scholarship trust fund program last year with a cap of $6,000 for 5,000 students. The money can go toward tuition, transportation, supplies or technology at either private schools or public schools outside a student's district.
Over three years, the current program expands to a $120,000 family income cap and a limit of 15,000 students.
The House-passed proposal opens the program to all students and sets the amount given to parents to rise along with spending per public school student.
The program needs to be expanded as soon as possible so more parents can access the help, House Education and Public Works Committee Chairwoman Shannon Erickson said. She was the only Republican to speak in favor of the bill and only for a few minutes.
"I'm an all-of-the-above education advocate," said Erickson, a Republican from Beaufort. "We can support our public school and our public school teachers, and we can support the needs of children and our families — and we can do it well."
Earlier this month, the South Carolina Supreme Court heard arguments about whether the 2023 law violates part of the state constitution banning direct aid to anything other than public schools. Proponents of the law argued the money goes to a trust fund that gets tapped by parents, so it isn't direct aid.
This year's House bill expands aid to home-schools. It also eliminates state audits for private schools getting the money and does not require them to give their students the same standardized tests as public school students.
Democrats suggested several changes to the bill like keeping the amount the Education Department can collect to pay a private firm to run the program at 2% instead of an increase to 5% or requiring private schools certify they didn't raise prices for voucher students. All their amendments were rejected.
"The pilot program was supposed to be the test. But the test has not been given," said Democratic Rep. Kambrell Garvin of Blythewood. Garvin taught for about three years.
Allowing parents to spend public money on private schools has been a two-decade 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.
The law is part of a nationwide movement. Groups that study the programs report that as many as 16 states have some form of the vouchers. Georgia's Senate passed a $6,500-per-student voucher bill Wednesday and sent the proposal to the governor.