School bill decision gives supporters a second chance

CHARLESTON — The vote to move the S.C. Education Opportunity Act back into subcommittee represents a good-news, bad-news scenario for school choice advocates.
The bad news is that the bill does not currently have the support it needs to pass out of committee and come before the full Senate, and if it did, it would most assuredly be defeated.
On the other hand, proponents said the good news is that they now have about six months to co-ordinate, organize and apply pressure to the legislators whose votes are needed to pass the school choice initiative.
When the bill came before the S.C. Senate Education Committee for a vote on May 13, Sen. Robert Ford recognized that it did not have the necessary support, so he asked that it be returned to subcommittee. Despite objections from some committee members, Sen. John E. Courson, from the Richland/Lexington County district, called for a vote and the measure was passed. 
Ford, a Charleston County Democrat, said he decided to sponsor and fight for the bill because it is the right thing to do for children.
Now that the school choice issue is back in subcommittee, it is doubtful any action will be taken during the current legislative session, which is scheduled to adjourn June 4. The General Assembly will not reconvene until January 2010.
In the meantime, proponents said they hope to rally enough support across the state to produce a deafening clamor that legislators cannot ignore.
“The perfect world would be when they come back in session enough voices will have been heard that they’ll immediately vote for it and put it in practice,” said Ara Adams, regional director of Conservatives in Action.
Adams has been fighting for school choice for six years, and she said more and more people have come out in support of the initiative, but their voices need to be heard.
She urged proponents to reach out across the state and gather together as activists to produce a loud and constant clamor. “It will make a difference. They will listen,” she said.
But it requires more than phone calls, she said. It requires people who will visit the Statehouse on a regular basis and ask for support.
One suggestion Adams made is for every parish and school to create a committee of two or three energetic people, educate them on the issue, and have them step forward and stand with the groups who support school choice.
One of those groups is the Catholic Church.
“The church sees it as a moral injustice; the inequity of education,” said Stephen Gajdosik, the Diocese of Charleston’s media relations officer.
Tabling the bill will allow the diocese to find a way to put more public pressure on state senators whose votes need to be changed, Gajdosik said.
He noted that many school officials seem to be fighting for the institution of public education at the expense of the child.
Adams echoed that sentiment, and said it seems to be a power struggle over who has the right to make education decisions instead of a simple question of what is best for children.
The proposed bill will provide tax credits to any person in South Carolina who files a state tax return and pays part of a student’s tuition.
The credit for tuition of a child with special needs will average $4,867, or 100 percent of the state’s average student spending. Children zoned to attend failing public schools will receive 75 percent, or $3,650, and all other students will be eligible for a credit of 50 percent of state spending, averaging $2,433. No credits will be given greater than the actual spending on tuition.
Adams said a number of private schools charge less than $2,000 a year, and the average cost is about $4,000. She noted that at those schools, tax credits would be a tremendous help to parents.
Also under the plan, parents who home school their children can claim up to $1,000 per child in credits based on instruction-related expenses.
For more information contact Ara Adams at (803) 422-7653 or