School Choice in Opens Up in South Carolina with Special Needs Program

As many states in the US continue to open up more educational options for families, South Carolina's new school choice program has announced its first 12 participating schools. The approved private schools, located around the state, will be allowed to accept special needs students who will pay tuition with state-funded grants.

Melanie Barton, the director of the state's Education Oversight Committee, has already promised that though these 12 schools represent the beginning, they will not be the end. The EOC is actively working to expand the list of schools approved to accept the grants.

South Carolina has had a particularly tough time passing a school choice bill, but after a number of failures supporters finally succeeded with a tax credit program that will allow residents to deduct donations they make to organizations that provide tuition grants to special education students to enroll in private schools. Only schools that are in good standing with the Southern Association of Christian Schools or the South Carolina Independent Schools Association are eligible to receive the grants.

So far, 12 schools have been accepted to take part in the program, including the Columbia Jewish Day School, Sandhills School and the Barclay School in Columbia. Schools in Anderson, Charleston, Florence, Greenville, North Augusta, Rock Hill, Russellville and Sumter also were approved.

The Oversight Committee contacted more than 200 private schools about participating. Most have not responded yet, but Barton said more are expected to apply.

Participating schools must submit documentation to the state showing they meet certain standards, including having programs serving special-needs students and regularly testing students to gauge their progress, said Dana Yow, the Oversight Committee's communications director.

According to Jamie Self writing for South Carolina blog The State, legislators approved up to $8 million in tax credits in the budget that went into effect this July. The program will need to be approved by legislators again next year in order to continue. Families that qualify for the grants will receive either $10,000 or full tuition at the school of their choice, whichever is lower.

So far, three organizations plan to take donations and offer grants.

• Columbia-based Advance Carolina will provide grants to students to attend schools belonging to the S.C. Association of Christian Schools, said Edward Earwood, executive director of both organizations.

• The Roman Catholic Diocese of Charleston is forming a scholarship-funding organization to assist students in attending Charleston-area Catholic schools, said Jacqualine Kasprowski, the diocese's associate director for secondary education and principal of Columbia's Cardinal Newman School. At least six or seven Catholic schools provide services for special-needs students, she said.

• Palmetto Kids First Scholarship Program of Mount Pleasant plans on filling another niche, said Jeff Davis, a consultant working with the group and a tax attorney who helped similar organizations in Georgia. The organization plans on providing grants to students to attend schools who are not members of the Catholic Diocese or Association of Christian Schools.

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