Impact: ESA expansion bill puts us on path to universal school choice

Impact: ESA expansion bill puts us on path to universal school choice

Update 3/21/24: The House on Wednesday gave the bill second reading by a vote of 69-32. We encourage a swift passage through the Senate so it may become law this year. 

On Wednesday, the S.C. House introduced a bill that would significantly expand South Carolina’s Education Scholarship Account (ESA) program, which passed in 2023 with support from this organization. 

For those unfamiliar, the program – which accepted applications through March 15 – offers scholarships to eligible families covering a wide range of K-12 expenses. These include private school tuition, textbooks, tutoring services, computers, fees for certain exams, and transportation for their children to attend other schools (including public schools). 

The new proposal would remove the ESA’s household income restrictions starting in the 2026-27 school year. It would also repeal the cap on enrollment (currently limited to 15,000 students by full implementation) starting in the 2027-28 school year. At that point, capacity would be dictated by annual funding. 

Lawmakers also want the scholarships to be more flexible. Under their plan, the $6,000 scholarship awards would increase annually based on the rate of state education funding growth.  

Last year, SCPC advocated for similar changes in a widely read report, Universal school choice: a roadmap for South Carolina. It outlined clear and actionable steps for how South Carolina can become a leader on educational freedom. We wrote at the time: 

“Lawmakers next year should revise the law and eliminate the enrollment cap starting in school years after 2026-27. Doing this now will save them the trouble of having to revisit this issue later. 

We also suggest removing the use of any income restrictions, preferably along the same time frame. Students should not be denied learning opportunities because of their parents’ income, and this change would ensure that students of all economic backgrounds are able to obtain scholarships.” 

We continued: 

“Finally, lawmakers should consider adjusting the scholarship values to increase annually, which are currently fixed at $6,000. As private school tuition and other approved expenses rise in cost, it is important to make sure parents don’t lose purchasing power.” 

In addition to these changes, we strongly support a companion school choice bill – the Academic Choice in Education (ACE) program – which cleared the Senate last year. The bill aims to create a robust tax-credit scholarship program serving thousands of K-12 students. 

We encourage the House and Senate to swiftly take up the ESA expansion measure, which lays the foundation for universal school choice access in South Carolina. Doing so will unlock educational freedom for countless parents across the state, enabling them to meet their children's unique learning needs.