S.C. Supreme Court strikes down Safe Grants program

Miscellany/Doug Deas: Students at Divine Redeemer in Hanahan pray at the start of school in August. The Safe Grants program would have provided tuition assistance to attend independent schools.

A grant program that would have helped families afford tuition for independent schools has been struck down by the South Carolina Supreme Court.

The Court’s Oct. 7 ruling struck down Gov. Henry McMaster’s Safe Access to Flexible Education (SAFE) Grants, a program which would have made funding available to help low- and middle-income families pay for tuition at participating schools around the state, including Catholic institutions.

Grants of up to $6,500 per student would have been available. Up to $32 million for the grants would have come from the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief (GEER) fund, which was allocated to the state because of the novel coronavirus pandemic.

The SAFE grants program was launched during the summer but was immediately put on hold after a lawsuit was filed by an Orangeburg County resident who stated that the grants violated the state constitution by using public funds for private or religious education.

More than 8,200 families statewide have applied for the grants.

The court ruling was addressed in a joint statement issued by the Diocese of Charleston, the South Carolina Association of Christian Schools, and the South Carolina Independent School Association.

“It is disappointing that the Supreme Court has decided to further hurt those low- to middle-income families who are suffering financially due to the COVID-19 pandemic,” the statement reads. “By blocking their access to SAFE Grants money, parents may not be able to send their children to the school of their choice. We will continue to fight for this program and for the children who deserve to attend the school that best suits their educational and emotional needs.”

William Ryan, diocesan superintendent for Catholic schools, also expressed disappointment.

“This ruling is unfortunate for families that want to have access to our Catholic schools and have a choice in their children’s’ education,” Ryan said. “We’re certainly appreciative for the governor’s efforts to make the grants available and hopeful that there will be continued legal challenges to uphold these grants. We’ll provide whatever support is needed.”

Michael Acquilano, director of the South Carolina Catholic Conference, said the decision is disheartening in a time when so many families are in need.

“We are disappointed in this decision, however, the battle for low- and middle-income families is not over,” he said. “We hope to appeal this decision or seek other available remedies.”

The next step in the appeals process would be to make an appeal at the federal level.