Beaufort News

Gubernatorial hopeful pushes for school vouchers

As families deal with financial pressures brought on by the recession, some might forego a private-school education for their children because of high tuition.

A struggling economy is just another reason for the state to consider giving tax credits to parents who are dissatisfied with public schools and want to send their children to private school, say local private school administrators.

The Education Opportunity Act, filed by state Sen. Robert Ford, D-Charleston, and a host of Republicans, would convert taxpayer money now going to public schools into tax credits, ranging from about $1,000 to $4,800 a year.

Parents could use the money to home school their children or send them to a private or parochial school. Senate Bill 520 was referred to the Education Committee.

Ford, a gubernatorial hopeful, said he is backing the bill to rescue poor kids from failing public schools.

"If the school's not doing its job, then we're supposed to take the money and give it to little Johnny's mama to go to any school that she wants to send him to," Ford said.

John Rogers, headmaster of Thomas Heyward Academy in Ridgeland, said millions of dollars have been put into public schools in Beaufort and Jasper counties, and students still are failing.

"The results are no better than they were 10 years ago," he said. "The things that would improve our schools cost nothing -- order, homework, knowledgeable teachers. ... Being a graduate of public schools, I'm not totally against public education. I would just like to see the parents have a voucher. It allows them a choice. It would help the poor among us, as well as the wealthy."

State superintendent of education Jim Rex disagrees, saying the tax credits would benefit a select few.

"This bill does nothing to help children in poverty, whether they are white or black," Rex said. "It provides a windfall for families with their kids already in private school."

Rogers said the bill will help poor families if tuition fees are not sky high. At Thomas Heyward, tuition costs $4,140 a year, he said.

Some private schools in southern Beaufort County cost more than three times that amount.

At Hilton Head Preparatory School, tuition for high school students begins at $15,450 a year.

In that case, tax credits probably would help only middle-class families, said Prep spokeswoman Margot Brown.

"Certainly anything that increases the choices available to families is a good thing in my opinion," she said. "I think private school is often outside the reach, especially of middle-class families that might not make enough to pay the tuition or make too much to qualify for financial assistance. This helps that middle-class group."

Some private schools across South Carolina said they wouldn't be able to accept an influx of new students, even if the state doles out tax credits.

At Prep, enrollment for kindergarten through 12th grade is 430 students. The school has the capacity for about 445 students, Brown said.

If the credits become available and more than 15 students are interested in Prep, Brown said there might be a way for the school to accommodate them.

"We have more space in some classes than others, but it would depend," she said. "It's possible we would have to turn some away."

More applications also could mean the school is more selective in choosing students, Brown said. To go to Prep, students must pass admissions tests and have strong teacher recommendations.

Other schools say they would welcome the new business.

Cross Schools in Bluffton eliminated its waiting list by adding 12 classrooms to its campus this fall, according to headmistress Shawn Young. The school teaches kindergarten through ninth grade and costs up to $6,950 a year. About 190 students are enrolled. The school could serve up to 300 students, Young said.

St. Peter's Catholic School in Beaufort also has room available. About 182 students are enrolled in kindergarten through eighth grade, and the school could serve 215, said principal Christopher Trott. Tuition is $4,200 a year for parishioners and $6,150 for non-parishioners.

Because of the recession, Trott said some families are considering the switch to public school. Tax credits, he said, might allow some of those families to keep their children in Catholic school.

Although the bill might create options for families, Valerie Truesdale, superintendent of the Beaufort County School District, said state legislators need to think carefully about how they spend taxpayer dollars.

"This is a year of unprecedented tax cuts in terms of budget shortfalls," she said. "Anything that would further put public-school funding in jeopardy is something I would have to seriously question."

The (Columbia) State newspaper contributed to this report.