Should public funds go to private schools? S.C. voters may decide

One of South Carolina’s top lawmakers wants voters to decide whether state dollars should be able to go private schools.
Published: Feb. 28, 2023 at 5:56 PM EST
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - One of South Carolina’s top lawmakers wants voters to decide whether state dollars should be able to go private schools.

That’s currently banned under the South Carolina Constitution.

A majority of voters would need to approve this amendment to change the state constitution.

But to even get the question on the ballot, the General Assembly needs to pass a resolution by reaching a higher threshold – a two-thirds vote in both chambers.

On Tuesday, the House of Representatives met that – passing the resolution along party lines.

“I think it’s past time that we repeal this outdated amendment,” said Rep. Murrell Smith, speaker of the House.

Smith’s legislation would put this question to voters in November next year – asking them if that part of the constitution should be repealed to eliminate the prohibition against the state to provide direct aid to religious or other private educational institutions.

Smith says this caught his attention in 2020 – when the current law led the state Supreme Court to block the governor from directly sending federal COVID money to private schools.

“This is a dangerous and far-reaching decision,” Smith said. “It has unintended consequences that a lot of people don’t think of through this process.”

He says some private schools are already receiving state dollars indirectly.

He listed off state-funded scholarships that help students go to in-state private colleges … and 4-year-old kindergarten programs in private and faith-based centers.

“Things that help our children in this state are in jeopardy,” Smith said.

Democrat Russell Ott noted those programs that indirectly receive state dollars aren’t being challenged.

“This opens up Pandora’s box,” Ott said.

He fears making this change to the state constitution – and then sending state money to private schools, and religious schools especially – could threaten religious freedom.

“Then all of a sudden, this body, which is not going to be made up of us in this room, says, ‘No, we’re going to take that money away from you unless you do what we tell you to do, unless you preach what we tell you to preach, unless you teach what we tell you to teach in that private institution, that religious school,” Ott said.

The resolution next moves to the Senate – where Republicans will need some Democratic help to pass it – and get this question before voters next year.