South Carolina has a new, temporary school choice law tucked within its recently-passed state budget. The bill, H.3710, authorizes nonprofits to offer scholarships to in-state students with special needs. Individuals and corporations that donate receive state tax credits in return.

Gov. Nikki Haley signed the bill June 27 and its provisions are now in effect, according to House Education Committee staff. 

The final House vote on the bill “was high drama—it passed by one vote,” said Rep. Robert Brown (D-Charleston), vice-chair of the Education and Public Works committee. “The large majority of Democrats voted against the bill because of that provision.” 

Lawmakers included the provision in the state budget after years of similar, independent bills failed to pass.

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The program’s tax credits are capped at $8 million. It allocates each student up to $10,000 or the cost of private tuition, whichever is less.

“South Carolina has about 730,000 students, so this program helps about 0.1 percent of the students in South Carolina. It’s a very limited pilot program,” says Jason Bedrick, a policy analyst with the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom.

The program also expires after one year.

“Next year we will see a bill coming out of the Senate to expand the program and make it permanent law,” Brown said, “now that the camel 's nose is under the tent.”

The donation and scholarship caps mean that about 800 students could likely participate this year, depending on the severity of students’ disabilities, said Vicki Alger, a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum. Scholarships average less, however, than $10,000 per student in the country’s largest special needs scholarship program, she noted.  Scholarships from Florida’s McKay Scholarship Program average $6,900.

Brown believes, despite U.S. Supreme Court decisions to the contrary, that the law sends public money to private schools: “I do not like the voucher system because it will destroy the public school system.”  The tax-credit scholarships can be used at public or private schools or for other educational expense.

School choice advocates, however, say it is a win-win for students and schools.

“What we know from more than 15 years’ experience with tax-credit scholarship programs nationwide is that the U.S. Supreme Court has declared them constitutional, they ease the burden on state and school budgets, and most important they expand option s for students who desperately need them,” says Alger. “Quite frankly, every child has special educational needs in one way or another, and all parents deserve the freedom to pick the schools they believe are best.”

Since 2014 is an election year for all statewide offices, including governor and education secretary, Brown says “you can bet this is going to be a campaign issue.”