Dr. Oran Smith

Exceptional SC: Moving Forward For Kids

September 27, 2016

Dr. Oran Smith

Do you remember the Apple III computer?

If that doesn’t ring a bell, here’s what happened. In 1978, Apple was anxious that its Apple II was destined to lose market share, so they rushed into production a new computer that would serve as their first entry into the business computing market. Designed by a committee rather than by Steve Wozniak (mistake #1), the Apple III was clunky, had no proper cooling fan, and used an operating system that wasn’t backward compatible. Though Apple III was popular with a few, most customers were furious and Apple was nearly sunk.

Given the fact that there is probably an Apple product in your house right now, there was a happy ending. Steve Jobs used the Apple III experience to introduce Lisa and then…the Macintosh. Apple has hardly looked back since.

The Apple situation of 1980 is strikingly similar to the recent dilemmas faced by the Educational Credit for Exceptional Needs Children (ECENC) program. Finding its origins in the hip pockets of two South Carolina Senators in the middle of a state budget debate, the ECENC was South Carolina’s first-ever private school choice program.

Taxpayers were allowed to donate some of their state tax liability to independent organizations that awarded scholarships to schools serving children with special needs. These marvelous private schools, possessing a unique ability to teach kids with learning challenges, were being funded by private donations to do what public schools are not equipped to do. Without doubt, the ECENC did a lot of good for many deserving children and their families.

But like the Apple III, there were bugs. The Department of Revenue conducted an audit and determined that the proviso wasn’t being followed as the Legislature intended by the largest of the four SFOs (Scholarship Funding Organizations).  There was even talk of shuttering the program completely, which would have been a disaster for students.

Thankfully, lawmakers instead decided to give the program a reboot. Now, a single independent non-profit organization with a board appointed by duly elected state officials is overseeing the disbursement of scholarships. (The new model, with one SFO, is similar to the model championed by former Governor Jeb Bush in landmark school choice legislation in Florida.) Former AT&T executive and SC Technology Alliance President Tom Persons has volunteered his time to chair the new entity, Exceptional SC, and the rebuilding has begun.

So what progress has been made?

  • An independent governing board composed of Thomas Persons the President & CEO of the South Carolina Technology Alliance; Michael Acquilano, Director of the South Carolina Catholic Conference; Edward Earwood, Executive Director of the South Carolina Association of Christian Schools; Betsy Fanning, Head of School at Trident Academy; and Dr. Spencer Jordan, Headmaster of Laurence Manning Academy have been appointed and are hard at work.  These tireless volunteers have standardized and professionalized the application and reporting processes, which puts the program on much firmer footing for future growth.
  • The Board has raised $5 million (half of the current program cap) in donated tax liability, which has funded the first semester scholarships at an average of $3,472/student. The available tax credit amount still available for donors as of this writing is $5,250,507.
  •  All “incumbent” children who applied (those who received scholarships as part of the old ECENC) have received scholarships for the first semester of 2016-2017.  That’s about 1,350 students.
  • All $2 million of the refundable parental tax credit has been claimed.

That’s nothing short of remarkable given the almost impossible timeline for rebuilding the program from nearly ground zero in mid-June.  And it has all been done in the face of a targeted misinformation campaign driven by those who fear that the new version of the program will succeed.

But, make no mistake, there is much more to do and the need is urgent.

Priority #1: Raise the other $5 million for second semester scholarships.

Can you help? Your donation comes from South Carolina taxes you already owe. There is no cost to you to have a part in educating children who are among the most vulnerable in our state in approved independent programs.  Learn how you can donate.

Priority #2 is to expand Exceptional SC.

Exceptional SC received over 2,100 applications for scholarship assistance that totaled almost $19 million, for a currently available $10 million program. That’s a huge unmet need: 675 applications were from new students who most likely will not be funded this year. The General Assembly should raise the cap to at least $25 million to fully fund Exceptional SC.

Priority #3 is to enact Exceptional SC into permanent law.

With the program now stabilized, Exceptional SC deserves to be in place for the long haul so that parents don’t have to worry and a child’s future doesn’t hinge on whether a budget proviso passes.

This is without question a critical rebuilding year for Exceptional SC.  The bottom line: steady progress is being made and South Carolina should stay the course for our parents and students.

We have the Mac now. We’re not going back to the Apple III.

Note: Numbers in this analysis are updated daily and were accurate at the time of publication.