Paul Bowers, previously the education journalist for the Charleston, South Carolina, Post & Courier, writes his own blog. In this post, he calls on the state legislators not to pass voucher legislation that would predictably defund the state’s already underfunded public schools. South Carolina has a large budget surplus and one of the lowest tax rates in the nation. Governor Henry McMaster announced that the surplus would be used to lower taxes instead of funding public schools and other public services.

Paul wrote the members of the S.C. Senate Education Committee in opposition to Senate Bill 935, which is an attempt to divert public school funding to private schools.

Senators Massey, Jackson, Hutto, Rice, and Talley:

I write to you as a South Carolinian and parent of 3 public school students asking you to scrap Senate Bill 935, the so-called “Put Parents in Charge Act,” which would redirect public funds to private schools via the creation of Education Savings Accounts.

Every few years, South Carolina teachers and parents have to band together to fight the latest iteration of the school voucher meme, which has spread virally across the states thanks to millions upon millions of dollars of dark-money political contributions, astroturfed special-interest groups, and a network of libertarian billionaires’ pet thinktanks. We fought this idea when New York real estate investor Howard Rich tried to buy a voucher law here in the early 2000s, and we’re fighting it again now that ALEC, Palmetto Promise, and the like are trying to ram the same idea through the Statehouse in Year of Our Lord 2022. There is truly nothing new under the sun.

As the educator Steve Nuzum has pointed out several times this year, the bill you will be considering in a subcommittee meeting on Feb. 16is largely copied from a piece of “model legislation” churned out by the American Legislative Exchange Council, a right-wing bill mill. I posit that we have enough terrible ideas to go around in this state without borrowing worse ones.

If enacted, this bill would be an obvious violation of the South Carolina Constitution, Article XI, Section 4, which states:

No money shall be paid from public funds nor shall the credit of the State or any of its political subdivisions be used for the direct benefit of any religious or other private educational institution.

Now, I am sure our attorney general would happily defend such an act against the inevitable lawsuits that would follow. I am no legal scholar, but I think it’s reasonable to assume he would employ some of the same arguments used to defend Gov. Henry McMaster when, in the thick of a global pandemic, he tried diverting $32 million worth of federal emergency funding from public schools to private schools. Notably, he lost that fight.

So, I suppose you and your colleagues in the General Assembly could enact this law, and you could win the legal battle that follows. Stranger things have happened. But the question remains whether you should go down this road.

I say no, you should not.

South Carolina’s most reactionary politicians have been clamoring for public divestment from the school system ever since radical Black Republicans created a free public school system for all in the Constitution of 1868. White supremacists clawed back at the notion of public goods with the Jim Crow Constitution of 1895; the Interposition Resolution of 1956; and the cavalcade of privatization laws, segregation academies, and district-level resegregation efforts that have continued without ceasing since Brown v. Board of Education was decided in 1954.

Data compiled by Steve Nuzum, via S.C. Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Office

As a matter of policy, you and your colleagues in the General Assembly have been steadily defunding public education since the start of the Great Recession. You have broken your own promises as outlined in the Education Finance Act and are currently under-funding the Base Student Cost by about a half-billion dollars per year. The results have been disastrous: Our teachers are underpaid and quitting by the thousands, classroom sizes have ballooned, our rural schools are in physical shambles, and a system of separate and unequal education along racial and economic lines has returned with a vengeance.

It is difficult to predict how much money public schools would lose as a result of Education Savings Accounts, which would allow public funds to “follow” individual students to private schools. Our state’s Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Office has tried to guess, though. According to a fiscal impact summary published in December, the ESA program could divert as much as $35 million to private schools within the first year it takes effect, depending how many families participate in the program. By 2026, they estimated the program could cost the state as much as $2.9 billion. Compounded by the General Assembly’s ongoing policy of public disinvestment, this could constitute a death blow to public schools.

The bill is built on a few faulty premises, including the underlying assumption that private schools could or would serve South Carolina students better. The authors of the bill also seem to believe that our state’s private schools could handle a sudden influx of new enrollment while accommodating students’ learning, transportation, and health needs. These are dicey propositions at best.

S. 935 is a direct attack on the notion of education as a public good. Its authors would leave us all to fend for ourselves as atomized individuals, cut loose from mutual obligations that once tied us together. For a certain type of doctrinaire conservative, this may sound like a dream scenario. For the rest of us living in the real state of South Carolina, it is a nightmare come true.


Paul Bowers

North Charleston, S.C.