Editorial: One plan to throw SC taxes at private schools is bad enough. We don't need 2.

[Post and Courier] Editorial: One plan to throw SC taxes at private schools is bad enough. We don't need 2.

Not content with a single bill that would throw $90 million in tax money at private schools that don’t have to meet state standards, the S.C. Senate is preparing to create a second program to pay parents to abandon public schools.

The good thing about the so-called “Academic Choice in Education” bill is that it might never waste as much money as the Senate’s straightforward voucher plan, because the new bill relies on individuals and companies who are so opposed to the idea of government that they’re willing to go to the trouble of diverting their tax dollars from the state’s general needs to the scholarships.

Of course, there could be more of them than we expect, since what is supposed to be a dollar-for-dollar trade of “donations” for state income tax credits can actually become a money-making scheme for certain taxpayers, because it can lower their federal income taxes.

But even if public school supporters who are backing S.285 are right in their calculation that this alternative plan will never amount to much, that’s the only thing that recommends it.

Unlike the voucher bill senators passed earlier this month, this one doesn’t even pretend to be targeted at poor kids. True, S.39 doesn’t focus on poor kids nearly as much as it should: A family of four that makes as much as $111,000 could receive vouchers under the legislation. But while this voucher work-around bill does reserve $15 million for kids from families who make half that much, there are no income limits for the other $30 million that taxpayers could give to private schools instead of paying their taxes.

Unlike the voucher bill, this one also pays parents, regardless of their incomes, who home-school their kids. That’s another $10 million that could be diverted from income tax payments.

Unlike the voucher bill, this one doesn’t even include the insufficient accountability of requiring scholarship recipients to take tests similar to the ones we require of public school students.

Lawmakers who have traditionally opposed voucher proposals said during last week’s Senate Finance Committee debate that this was OK because S.285 doesn’t take any money out of the state budget. That’s technically true, but the effect is indistinguishable: It reduces the amount of money that goes into the treasury by giving people those dollar-for-dollar income tax credits when they donate to a self-selected nonprofit organization.

That’s a nonprofit organization that the state doesn’t really regulate and that keeps 5% of the money for overhead and doles out the rest to students it selects to receive scholarships to private schools. It’s worth recalling that the last time the Legislature tried authorizing these Rube Goldberg around-your-elbow-to-your-nose “scholarship-funding organizations,” it had to shut them down after years of abuses and create a state panel to run the special-needs scholarship program.

Even if you agree that there's a significant difference between spending tax money on private schools and never collecting it in the first place, it’s worth recalling, too, that the similar, but smaller, special-needs program the state created in 2014 does require testing. In fact, it requires all the students to be tested in schools that accept the scholarships — not just the scholarship recipients. Which is what we should do, since the tests are designed to judge schools rather than students. This bill would wipe out the current program, along with its testing requirement, and replace it with what supporters hope will be a much larger program, with no testing required.

Nor should we feel good about this work-around program because senators propose to launder a smaller amount of money through it than they want to set aside for a traditional voucher program: Supporters have made it clear that they hope to greatly expand the amount of money going into both programs.

The sponsors see using the private, unregulated scholarship-funding organizations as a safer way to pay parents to leave the public schools, because they worry that the S.C. Supreme Court will find the voucher bill unconstitutional. Frankly, we don’t expect that to happen, because we believe voucher backers have misread an admittedly badly written opinion from two years ago, when the high court said Gov. Henry McMaster couldn’t use COVID money that had all sorts of strings attached to it to pay for vouchers.

It might be nice to imagine that the Legislature could be prevented from squandering $90 million next year on vouchers, but the more likely outcome if this $55 million bill becomes law is that both programs go into effect next year, using our tax money to lure even more of the most engaged parents out of our public schools and to further weaken public support for the schools that the vast majority of S.C. children will always rely on.

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