State lawmakers change special needs tax credit program

COLUMBIA—The St. Thomas Aquinas Scholarship Fund will no longer exist as a separate source of funding for scholarships to Catholic schools as of Aug. 1 if a new bill becomes law.

In a May 25 vote, state lawmakers voted to ban the Aquinas fund and three other nonprofit groups from raising money to help students with disabilities attend private schools. Instead, a new charity fund will be created within the state Department of Revenue to take donations for these students. The new charity fund would be known as the Education Credit for Exceptional Needs Children Fund.

That fund will be supervised by a five-member board of directors appointed by House and Senate finance leaders and the governor.

The proposed changes to the scholarship programs are part of the state budget, which could be approved within days.

The St. Thomas Aquinas fund was passed in 2013 and first started funding scholarships in early 2014. It was created to provide tuition assistance for special needs children to attend Catholic schools in the diocese. Donors to the fund could receive a special tax credit.

In its three-year existence, the Aquinas fund released $3.7 million to more than 600 children in 29 Catholic schools, according to Michael F. Acquilano, director of the St. Thomas Aquinas Scholarship Funding Organization and the S.C. Catholic Conference. About $2.5 million was donated to the fund in the past year.

“The diocese and board of directors of the St. Thomas Aquinas scholarship are greatly disappointed by this recent change in the structure of the special needs tax credit program,” Acquilano said. “However, we are focused on providing support to all special needs children in our diocese, and we look forward to further development on the administration of this new scholarship organization.”

Acquilano said families who have already received scholarship funds have been grandfathered in for the 2016-17 school year. A total of 421 students received funds from the Aquinas program in the past year.

Catholics may also have a presence in determining how scholarship donations are distributed. The Diocese of Charleston has been granted one position on the board of directors of the new scholarship fund, Acquilano said.

During its existence, the St. Thomas Aquinas Scholarship Fund has covered between 70-100 percent of tuition for eligible students. An average of $5,696 was provided to each child. Students served by the scholarship had a wide variety of special needs, ranging from physical or speech and language impairment to autism, learning disabilities, or visual and hearing impairments.

Funds raised through St. Thomas Aquinas also helped start new special needs programs at 25 schools in the diocese, and led to the implementation of a statewide special needs curriculum.