The floodgates are opening for vouchers, as Republicans accelerate their war on public schools.

South Carolina Republicans introduced voucher legislation, joining a long list of other red states.

COLUMBIA — Republican legislators are on track to create a private school choice program in South Carolina after years of failed attempts, driven by parental complaints about closed classrooms and virtual-only non-learning amid the pandemic.

Legislation providing parents up to $5,000 yearly toward private tuition costs will likely advance to the House floor Feb. 9, a day after it easily cleared a Ways and Means subcommittee.  

“The unique circumstances of educating a child during the pandemic has taught us lessons,” Rep. Murrell Smith, chairman of the budget-writing committee and the main sponsor, said to open the one-hour meeting.

“The two things I think are very distinct and loud that we’ve heard is that parents want a voice in their children’s education, and they want a choice as to their children’s education,” the Sumter Republican said. “The time has come for those parents to have a choice right now. Kids who need the most help are victims of their economic circumstances as well as their geography.”

His proposal would set aside $75 million of the state’s surplus to create a three-year pilot program for up to 5,000 students annually in kindergarten through sixth grades. All children who qualify for Medicaid would be eligible for the tuition voucher, which in South Carolina means their parents earn at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level, or $46,000 for a family of three.

Up to 500 students who are children of active-duty military service members would also qualify. 

If applications exceed the 5,000-student cap, the tuition aid would be doled out through a lottery…

This is not a silver bullet for education or for choice in education,” Murrell said. “This is a first step.”

The pilot is limited to elementary-age students, he said, since they’ve been most harmed by school closures. 

The subcommittee’s vote brought applause from an audience filled with fifth- through eighth-grade students from a Catholic school in Florence.

GOP senators are working on their own voucher proposal, though more slowly. A Senate Education subcommittee could advance its version Feb. 9 after weeks of meetings.

As introduced, that proposal would provide parents roughly $7,000 yearly for private K-12 education through a phased-in program open to 5,000 students initially and expanding to all Medicaid-eligible students, potentially costing hundreds of millions of tax dollars. But senators have been working on amendments to limit the possible cost.