Recently, we published an overview of South Carolina's national rankings across different performance indicators in education. We found that South Carolina lags behind other states when it comes to test scores, graduation rates, and reading proficiency for eighth-grade students.
The good news is that major educational reforms are finally making progress, including a historic K-12 scholarship program that passed this spring. To keep parents up to speed, we recap that program here, and dive into several different choice proposals that have made progress at the Statehouse.
This year's Education Scholarship Account (ESA) program
Earlier this year, South Carolina achieved a significant milestone when it comes to parental choice with the passage of an education scholarship account (ESA) program. The program is aimed at helping students, in this case those from low- and middle-income families, have access to new learning opportunities by letting parents direct their education funding.
Starting in school year 2024-25, parents of eligible students can use scholarships worth $6,000 to pay for the following education expenses:
- Private school tuition and fees
- Textbooks, curriculum, or other instructional materials
- Tutoring services
- Computers and other learning devices
- Fees for approved tests, including college admissions exams
- Educational services for students with disabilities (note: students participating in the Educational Credit for Exceptional Needs Children’s Fund program are not eligible for the scholarship program)
- Transportation costs for their children to attend other schools
- Other educational expenses approved by the state Department of Education
The program is limited to 5,000 students in its first year and 15,000 by full implementation (school year 2026-27). The Policy Council hopes this cap will be raised significantly in the future.
Earlier this year, our poll of South Carolina voters found broad support for the scholarship program and school choice generally, which helped the measure gain support at the Statehouse.
Educational reforms making progress at the Statehouse
The following education-related proposals were introduced in 2023, and all have been passed by at least one legislative chamber. With the exclusion of a proposed constitutional amendment, each of these have a real shot at becoming law next year (South Carolina’s legislative sessions operate on a two-year cycle.)
S.285 - Academic Choice in Education (ACE)
Much like the ESA program, this bill would establish a K-12 scholarship program that lets parents direct education funds on behalf of their children to meet their educational needs. However, the ACE proposal has at least two key differences.
First, the program would be funded via private tax-deductible donations, allowing multiple private nonprofits to raise money for scholarships. This is in contrast with the ESA’s state-funded model. Second, it would have broader eligibility, with four designated student categories:
Students with disabilities
Students from low-income families
Students from middle-income families
- Homeschool students
Eligible scholarship expenses would include private school tuition and fees, textbooks, tutoring, school-related transportation costs, and even homeschool expenses, depending on the student.
Scholarship amounts would vary by student category and depend on the average state per-pupil expenditure in a given year. As per-pupil spending increases over time, so too would scholarship amounts.
By enacting this program, South Carolina can ensure that even more students reap the benefits of choice in education, in addition to fostering healthy competition in our school system.
Status: Passed the Senate, in the House Ways in Means Committee
H.3843 - Statewide open enrollment
This proposal would require all local school boards to adopt an open-enrollment policy, allowing parents to enroll their children outside their normally designated schools where feasible.
Districts would get to work out the details to maintain flexibility based on student, school, district, and community needs. Currently, districts decide whether to offer open enrollment, and most do not have such a policy.
It is important to recognize that “school choice” can also mean having more options within the public school system. This bill would even the education playing field by giving parents across the state more choice and flexibility within their school districts.
Status: Passed the House, in the Senate Education Committee
S.134 - Livestreaming school board meetings
This bill would require public school boards (including the school boards of charter and special schools) to make “reasonable and necessary efforts” to livestream their meetings. Districts would be required to adopt a local livestream policy that includes a model policy set by the State Board of Education.
Livestreaming is a critical tool for maintaining public engagement and providing transparency, which is particularly needed at the local level. This proposal would provide more accessibility for parents to participate in their local school board meetings, particularly when in-person attendance is not possible.
Status: Passed the Senate, in the House Education and Public Works Committee
S.124 - Noncertified teacher pilot program
This measure would set up a pilot program to allow certain schools to hire noncertified teachers in a ratio of up to 10% of their teaching staff. Noncertified teachers would be required to have a suitable bachelor’s or graduate degree and at least five years of relevant work experience.
The bill would give schools more options to address teacher shortage issues by allowing them to hire qualified teachers who may not have started or finished the certification process. The program would be optional, with the decision to participate resting with the state Department of Education and the school principal, upon approval by the district superintendent.
Status: Passed the Senate, in the House Education and Public Works Committee
H.3591 - Blaine Amendment repeal
This proposed constitutional amendment would repeal the prohibition on the state providing direct public funding to religious or other private schools. As opponents of school choice may very well bring a legal challenge to the state’s ESA program, some have argued that this amendment might be necessary for the longevity of the program, prompting the House to give it initial passage earlier this year. More broadly, removing the constitutional prohibition may open the door to more school choice opportunities in the future.
However, it is worth noting that the ESA program was specifically crafted to be compliant with the law. Not only does it put parents (not the state) in charge of directing scholarship funds, but it also allows funds to be spent on more than just private school tuition.
State constitutional amendments need at least a two-thirds majority vote to pass each chamber and must be approved by a majority of voters at the next general election (giving the public the final say on this issue).
Status: Passed the House, in the Senate Judiciary Committee
A Hopeful Future
South Carolina is on a positive trajectory when it comes to education, highlighted by the movement of historic school choice legislation this year. We applaud every legislator committed to providing students with more learning opportunities, improving educational outcomes, empowering parents, and making South Carolina more competitive with its neighbors.
The ultimate objective, of course, should be achieving universal school choice. Under this model, there would be few, if any, barriers to participate in scholarship programs, and specialized learning resources would be available for all who need them. For many parents, traditional public schools will continue meeting their children’s educational needs, but it is important that alternative options exist where needed.
When session kicks off in January, we encourage legislators to quickly revisit and advance these proposals, giving them a strong chance at crossing the finish line next year.