By JEFFREY COLLINS, Associated Press

COLUMBIA, SC (AP) — The South Carolina Senate on Wednesday night gave key approval to a bill that would allow some poor or disabled students, with taxpayer money, to attend a private school or a public school outside their district.

The 25-15 vote overcomes a big hurdle that advocates of school choice and vouchers have been trying to dominate in the state for nearly two decades.

After another routine vote, the bill goes to the House, which has been more supportive of the idea in the past.

The bill provides up to $6,000 in state money each year. In addition to tuition, the money could also be spent on textbooks, materials, educational services, or equipment for students with disabilities.

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The program would be limited to students whose family income is low enough to make them eligible for Medicaid and students with disabilities who require a formal plan for their education from a school district. More than half of the state’s 781,000 students could use the program.

The “scholarship trust funds” would be limited to 5,000 students in the first year before reaching a permanent cap of 15,000 students in the third year. If the program reaches its maximum, it would cost $90 million a year, said House Majority Leader Shane Massey.

“It’s not a magic bullet. It doesn’t solve all the problems in education, but it does solve some of them,” said the Edgefield Republican who has worked on the bill for most of this year. year.

The proposal is the evolution of nearly 20 years of Republicans pushing to invest money to provide more educational choices for parents. Problems with online or in-person classes during the COVID-19 pandemic have made the legislation more urgent. Sponsors have tailored the bill to poorer families or those with special educational needs.

Opponents of the program said it likely violated the state constitution, which prohibits spending public money on private or religious schools. They said $6,000 does not cover full tuition at some private schools and poor students cannot afford to make up the difference.

They also argue that a fairer solution would be to invest more money in education, especially in poorer areas, instead of focusing on a plan that is not popular with educators.

“We’re arguing that we’re doing things that really make us feel good and we’re leaving here thinking we’ve made a difference, but we’re putting a little band-aid on a really serious bleeding issue,” the senator said. Darrel. Jackson, a Democrat from Hopkins.

A number of changes were proposed to the bill during four days of debate, but most were defeated.

More conservative senators had their proposals rejected either to expand the program to more students or to allow higher-income families to take the money if poorer families did not fill all the seats.

Proposals to prevent private religious schools that take the money from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation or disabilities were also rejected.

If a student leaves a school district, the state’s per-student spending for that student is no longer suppressed. Private schools taking the money should give students the same standardized tests as public school students for accountability.

A similar bill is on the floor of the House. The House proposal would create a pilot program and use money not already set aside for education. It still needs to be debated.

Lawmakers are also considering bills that would allow for school choice both within school districts and between school districts in certain circumstances.

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