Commentary: Education scholarship accounts would give SC parents better options

May 10, 2021

Alison Heape


This article originally appeared in The Post & Courier

Patrick Kelly of the Palmetto State Teachers’ Association contended in a recent op-ed that the education scholarship account program proposed in H.3976 would not be accountable, affordable or accessible. While I echo his calls to equitably fund charter schools and expand intradistrict public options to offer school choice, this is not enough.

High-income families have opportunities that low-income families do not; South Carolina’s education system will not be equitable until disadvantaged children have access to a full range of educational providers, public and independent, like children in wealthy families do. Every step toward this goal evens the playing field; this is why, as a public school teacher, I support H.3976.

Families who cannot afford to leave public schools that are not meeting their needs cannot afford an army of lobbyists, and therefore hold little sway with education insiders. However, parents who have educational mobility can vote with their feet, holding all educational providers equally accountable to families.

Beyond that, the bill requires every student to take a test each year to measure their learning. This could mean an approved nationally norm referenced test that would allow education scholarship account students to be compared, apples to apples, to how students across the country are learning. However, opponents insist that students should be forced to take South Carolina’s state tests.

And while this bill allows the state test as an option, isn’t the point of independent education to offer students something comparable to — but different than — a one-size-fits-all system? Aren’t flexibility and customization what our students need? Education scholarship accounts would allow for this, while still delivering transparent, objective measures of student learning, whether through a state or national test.

As for affordability, an appeal was made to a common misconception that tuition at South Carolina independent schools costs more than $20,000 a year. While a handful of schools do charge that much, even a modest education scholarship account of $5,000 would nearly cover the approximately $5,200 median tuition cost found across the vast majority of South Carolina’s independent schools.

Schools that specifically serve students with special needs are necessarily more expensive. However, as Rep. Shannon Erickson has made clear, the bill would not preclude families of students with special needs from using both an education scholarship account and an Exceptional S.C. scholarship. Additionally, a recent survey of independent schools found that about 20% of their students receive some sort of needs-based assistance. Paired with an education scholarship account, private scholarships and philanthropy could be stretched even further to continue to help bridge the financial gap.

Lastly, what about accessibility for students with special needs or those living in rural areas? It is true that some independent schools do not have the resources to educate students with severe disabilities. However, as the Rev. Doug Slaughter of Second Baptist Preparatory School in Aiken has testified, with an education scholarship account program, they could afford to expand their special education offerings.

While nearly all South Carolina students already live within 30 minutes of an independent school (and H.3976 also allows funds to be used for transportation costs), education scholarship accounts would break down geographic barriers as supply grows to meet newly empowered demand. For example, as Rep. Erickson noted in a recent hearing, a Catholic church in Orangeburg is standing by, ready to open a new school if low-income students in the area have the ability to provide a base of support through the ESA program.

No one program will overcome every challenge that South Carolina faces in the fight to provide equal opportunity for every student. But based on the experience of other states, we know that H.3976 would be an important step in the right direction. Students who need help cannot afford for us to make the promise of perfection tomorrow the enemy of progress today.

Alison Heape is an elementary music teacher in Greenville County public schools and an incoming doctoral fellow in the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas. You can follow her @AlisonHeape on Twitter.