Arguments over Gov. McMaster’s $32 million SAFE Grants program heard in court Wednesday

An Orangeburg County attorney filed for a temporary injunction since he says the program is unconstitutional

ORANGEBURG, S.C. (WOLO) — A judge heard arguments and testimony concerning Gov. Henry McMaster (R-SC)’s plan to give millions of dollars worth of scholarships for low-income students to attend private schools this fall. 

However, Judge Edgar Dickson left the courtroom Wednesday without making a decision.

The hearing took place after an Orangeburg County attorney filed for a temporary injunction to block the program he says is unconstitutional. 

At a press conference in Greenville on July 20, Gov. McMaster announced $32 million from the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief (GEER) fund, which came directly from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, would go towards one-time scholarships for low-income students to attend private schools this fall. The Governor also announced he would use $8 million from that pool of money to support the state’s eight HBCU’s. 

Attorney Skyler Hutto filed for a temporary injunction on behalf of former public educator Thomasenia Adams to pause the program last week, saying the state shouldn’t use those dollars to fund religious or private schools.

“The choice to expend the money in this fashion is unconstitutional in two ways: first of all, it’s a direct benefit to private schools, and second, it shirks the state’s obligation to fund public schools in an adequate way,” Hutto said. 

The Palmetto Promise Institute, which supports school-choice initiatives and the Governor’s Safe Access to Flexible Education (SAFE) grants, is one of the defendants in the lawsuit.

Palmetto Promise President Ellen Weaver argues that the money does not go directly into the pockets of private schools; instead, she says blocking the grants, which would be worth up to $6,500 per student and could support up to 5,000 students statewide, from being issued would prevent several students from exploring other educational avenues.

“Programs such as the SAFE Grants Act and what Governor McMaster is trying to do on behalf of children in South Carolina, who need access to the great education that will help meet their full potential this fall, are entirely constitutional,” Weaver said. 

A judge heard testimony and arguments from both sides in Orangeburg County on Wednesday. Derek Black, a law professor at the University of South Carolina and the Ernest F. Hollings Chair in Constitutional Law at the university, took the stand to testify about the program’s constitutional merits.

The hearing took place for nearly three hours Wednesday, but the judge left the courtroom without making a ruling, and won’t have a decision until he reviews all the information.

“He’s going to do any legal research he needs to do, read everything that was submitted to him and ultimately make a decision, but I think in regards to what happened in the courtroom, we made all the points we needed to make,” Hutto said following the hearing.

Weaver told reporters once the hearing concluded that she didn’t want to speculate as to where the judge was leaning, but she says the case law at the federal and state level supporting the program is hard to ignore.

“We are confident that the merits of this case will bear us out and we hope for a speedy resolution from the judge in this case, because we believe that justice delayed is justice denied for the students who would benefit most from this program,” Weaver said.

Gov. McMaster’s office said South Carolina families with a household adjusted income up to 300% of the federal poverty level would qualify for a grant. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the poverty level for a family of four in the United States is $78,600.

According to My SC Education, the SAFE grants can be used to cover tuition for the 2020-21 school year. The first 2,500 grants will be rewarded on a first-come, first-serve basis, then a lottery system would be implemented.

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