Tim Abram is the Associate Policy Director of Educational Opportunity for ExcelinEd.
As states navigate the COVID-19 landscape, Governor Henry McMaster of South Carolina has provided an example of how governors can invest federal dollars to create new educational opportunities for students.
On July 20, Governor McMaster announced he intended to allocate $32 million of the state’s $48 million in GEER funding provided by the CARES Act to create the Safe Access to Flexible Education (SAFE) Grant program. The SAFE Grants will “provide critical support for working and low-income families to stabilize their child’s education journey during COVID-19.”
The program will provide 5,000 students with a grant of up to $6,500. Similar to Education Scholarship Accounts (ESAs) in states like North Carolina, Florida, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Arizona, the SAFE Grants will enable eligible students whose household income is 300% or less of the federal poverty level to attend a participating independent school of their choice.
There is a sound rationale for the program: Across the country and in South Carolina, students in district schools had mixed and often disappointing experiences with distance learning. Low-income students were among the most negatively affected. With more private schools than district schools opting for face-to-face learning in fall of 2020, the Governor is providing families with options.
Unfortunately, the prospect of South Carolina students receiving the grant is now in jeopardy. Two days after Governor McMaster announced the SAFE Grant program, a South Carolina circuit judge halted the program after a lawsuit was filed in Orangeburg County.
The lawsuit is premised on the notion that the program violates the state’s Blaine Amendment by sending public money to faith-based schools. The extent to which this argument will hold is unclear, especially since South Carolina already has a private school choice program and the state has seen prior litigation that confronts issues of private school choice.
Also, SCOTUS’s recent Espinoza decision ruled that a similar provision in Montana was unconstitutional. Whether or not the South Carolina suit succeeds, time is of the essence: stalling SAFE Grants from implementation risks the program and the students it would serve.