The South Carolina House of Representatives on Thursday sent to the Senate a bill that would offer tax deductions for parents who send their children to private schools.
It has been a battle for the past eight years between those who say the tax breaks offer a ticket out for kids stuck in struggling schools and those who say the lost tax revenue hurts public education. First supporters pushed for school vouchers– in which the state government covers part of private school tuition. After that failed, school choice supporters tried again with tax credits, rather than actual vouchers. One such bill failed by a single vote in the House last year.
This year, supporters offered a version that offered tax deductions instead. A 65-49 vote Wednesday marked the first time a so-called “school choice” had passed either the House or Senate.
“It’s huge, as far as I’m concerned,” said Rep. Eric Bedingfield (R-Mauldin), who has been one of the bill’s most vocal supporters.
H.4894 would allow families to deduct up to $4,000 on their income taxes for private schools, $2,000 for homeschool expenses, and $1,000 for attending a public school that charges them for living outside its borders. It would also allow tax credits of up to $5,000 for third parties who donate to special scholarship organizations for low-income or special needs students. Those organizations would be capped at $15 million in scholarships.
All Democrats and a few Republicans voted against it. Rep. James Smith (D-Columbia) criticized the estimated $37 million in lost tax revenue it would cause, saying that would almost certainly affect public schools. “We’re a poor state. We’ve got real challenges here.”
Democrats were upset about more than $12 million pumped into campaign funding by outside groups that supported the law– most notably those founded by New York real estate developer Howard Rich– saying it poisoned the process.
“A New Yorker has won because he’s sent enough money down here to convince you that what you have done here is the right thing,” Rep. Joe Jefferson (D-North Charleston) told House Republicans on the floor, “So I applaud you… for doing an idiotic thing.”
However, South Carolinians for Responsible Government, which pushed for the law, said public school organizations were also spending taxpayer money to fight the bill through fliers to teachers and with lobbyists at the South Carolina Education Association and the South Carolina Association of School Administrators.
“It may not be illegal, but it at least should be,” said SCRG spokesman Neil Mellen.
Rep. Mike Anthony (D-Union), a teacher who voted against the bill, said various legislators who had opposed vouchers in the past had been voted out of office in favor of Republicans who supported them.
“To see the nastiness of it is not fair,” Anthony said, “What this entire Assembly is trying to do is what’s best for the 765,000 children that we’re educating.”
Rep. Rita Allison (R-Duncan) agreed. She had opposed previous versions of school choice bills, but supported– and helped draft– the bill passed on Wednesday. “We should not be pitting education against education in this state,” she told the body, “It should be the best thing to happen to any child in this state, private or public.”
The bill is unlikely to pass in the Senate, where its opponents have a stronger base. However, many of those opponents are Upstate Republicans who are facing primary challenges from candidates who support the deductions.
Bedingfield said he hopes South Carolina eventually gives the idea a chance, “It will give us a good opportunity to see how it works and we’ll make a determination in the future whether what we did was good or bad.”