Educational advocates react to SAFE Grants ruling; some say it’s big for public education

The SC Supreme Court ruling called the $32 million grant program unconstitutional

COLUMBIA, S.C. (WOLO) — A program aimed at giving low income families scholarships for their children to attend private schools was struck down by the South Carolina Supreme Court on Wednesday.

The Safe Access to Flexible Education (SAFE) Grants Program championed by Governor Henry McMaster (R-SC) was deemed unconstitutional in a unanimous by the state’s highest court. Justices said that it would violate the state constitution if public dollars directly benefitted private schools.

Back in July, Governor McMaster announced that $32 million of a $48 million pool of money coming in from the CARES Act (known as the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief, or GEER) would go towards awarding scholarships up to $6,500 to low income families for their children to attend private schools.

Shortly after the program’s announcement, Orangeburg attorney Skyler Hutto filed for a temporary injunction to block the grants from being handed out. This led to a circuit court hearing in August, which ultimately led to a Supreme Court hearing on September 19.

Nearly two months after the program was introduced, the South Carolina Supreme Court ruled that giving public money directly to private schools violates the state constitution.

Sherry East, the President of the South Carolina Education Association (SCEA), says the ruling is a big victory for public education.

“90% of our kids attend a public school, so I think 96% of us would agree that the money needs to stay with the public schools,” East said.

Even with hundreds of millions of dollars from the CARES Act already supporting public education, East says the $32 million could be a big boost to several public schools who have struggled due to the pandemic.

“We have schools with no air conditioning, with windows that don’t open, with shotty heating systems,” East said. “We really need to take a look at our facilities and what we could do with that funding is to insure every child goes to a safe building.”

In a statement, Gov. McMaster said:

“I remain committed to providing educational opportunity for lower income families and families with special needs at public and private kindergartens, schools, and colleges. 

“In addition to the lower income families directly affected by this decision, it may also place in jeopardy millions of CARES Act dollars recently appropriated by the General Assembly to directly reimburse independent private colleges and HBCUs. We will request the Court to reconsider this important decision.”

Dr. Shaunette Parker, the Executive Director of My SC Education, a group that supports the SAFE Grants program, told ABC Columbia that she feels the ruling prevents thousands of children from affordably pursuing academic options that could really help them.”

“People are saying ‘well it would only benefit a small number of children’, but don’t they matter too?” Parker said. “This just would have been a way to really help the parents, not the private school directly, but it would have been able to help those parents, so we’re going to continue being there for families and trying to work with them.” 

The Palmetto Promise Institute, one of the defendants in Adams v. McMaster and a supporter of the SAFE Grants program, also released a statement shortly after the ruling’s announcement Wedensday saying:

“We believe (Wednesday)’s decision errs on several essential points. As a consequence, thousands of moderate and low-income South Carolina families hurt by COVID have been denied the relief they need for their children’s education. We plan to review the decision in concert with the Governor’s office to determine next steps and will continue to fight for these families.”

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