May 23, 2013

Great news from South Carolina! The State Senate there has voted down a scheme intended to funnel millions of taxpayer dollars to religious and other private schools.

According to The State, a Columbia newspaper, the Senate voted 23-18 yesterday to reject the proposal after nearly three hours of debate. Amendment 54 would have given tax credits for donations to “scholarship” organizations that pay for tuition at private schools. The package also would have given $4,000 tax deductions to parents for tuition at private schools and $2,000 for home-schooling costs.

The scheme, sponsored by Sen. Larry Grooms (R-Berkeley), faced bipartisan opposition. Nine Republicans, including President Pro Tempore John Courson (R-Richland County) and other leading GOP senators, voted with the Democrats to derail the scheme.

Many senators said the state cannot afford to divert public money to private education at a time when the state’s public schools are grossly underfunded. The State said some experts estimated that $39.1 million in revenue would be lost if the tax breaks were granted.

Observed Sen. Joel Lourie (D-Richland) during the debate, “Until we start addressing the core needs of public education, and make sure that every child in every school district in South Carolina has an equal opportunity to succeed, you’ll see staunch opposition to any program that in any way undermines the funding for the public school system.”

The Senate vote was a victory not only for public schools but also for church-state separation.

In a legislative action alert, Americans United called the Grooms proposal a “back-door school voucher” scheme that would fund religious schools and violate our national commitment to church-state separation. We noted that voucher programs and “neo-voucher” programs (such as tax credits) are ineffective and often lack accountability and civil rights protections.

The win in South Carolina is especially gratifying because pro-voucher forces have targeted the state for a big-bucks campaign to pass legislation aiding religious and other private schools.

New York real estate tycoon Howard Rich and a phalanx of out-of-state interests have poured millions into South Carolina with the sole purpose of electing pro-voucher legislators and spreading pro-voucher propaganda.  (Rich is a buddy of former governor and now U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford.) Freedom Works, a Tea Party-affiliated outfit, has reportedly been helping with the project as well.

According to a Phil Noble op-ed in Bluffton Today, “No one really knows exactly how much Rich has spent on trying to buy political influence in South Carolina. He gives lots of money to many different organizations and he has a wide network of cronies who also give massive amounts.

“In the last election,” Noble says, “the official reported number from Rich’s network was $153,000 to 19 candidates (18 were Republican), with total contributions to individual candidates ranging from $1,000 to $25,000. Since 2008, Rich’s affiliated groups also have given at least $341,000 in campaign contributions alone.

“But this is only the tip of the iceberg,” Noble adds. “Because many Rich-supported organizations are not required by law to report donations, and South Carolina’s campaign and ethics reporting laws are so weak, that total number of dollars spent by Rich and his cronies is unknown – most certainly several million dollars and perhaps ten times this amount.”

Rich and his high-rolling privatization pals lost this round, but Noble warns that the right-wing ideologues have no intention of giving up.

“One way or the other choice [a private school voucher program] is coming,” Rich reportedly told one senator, “It is only a matter of resources, planning and patience — and I can assure you we are blessed with an abundance of all three.”

South Carolina public schools and church-state separation won a big battle this week, but the war goes on. We must remain alert.