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S.C. Supreme Court deems SAFE grants unconstitutional

Molly Hulsey //October 9, 2020//

S.C. Supreme Court deems SAFE grants unconstitutional

Molly Hulsey //October 9, 2020//

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The S.C. Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that Gov. Henry McMaster’s $32 million tuition grant program for private school students violates the state constitution.

“We hold the governor’s decision constitutes the use of public funds for the direct benefit of private educational institutions within the meaning of, and prohibited by, Article XI, Section 4, of the South Carolina Constitution,” Chief Justice Donald Beatty said in the court’s ruling.

The article states that no public funding or state credit can be used to directly benefit religious or private educational institutions.

McMaster launched the Safe Access to Flexible Education program at a press conference at Greenville’s Hampton Park Christian School on July 20, using monies from the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund allocated from federal COVID-19 relief support. Grants of up to $6,500 per student would have covered the cost of private or independent school tuition for families with an adjusted gross income of up to 300% of the federal poverty line.

On July 21, Orangeburg educator Thomasena Adams filed a complaint in the Orangeburg Trail Court against the program, which was blocked by an Orangeburg judge on July 22 and then punted to the Supreme Court on July 29.

Before the Supreme Court case held on Sept. 18, Ellen Weaver, CEO and president of think-tank and defendant Palmetto Promise Institute, argued that the funding was not unconstitutional since it was distributed directly to parents whose children attended private schools but not directly to the schools themselves.

“When you look at choice programs, both in South Carolina and many other states around the country, courts have held consistently that programs like this are not direct support to a private school, because there is an intervening parent choice or student choice that happens to direct those funds,” she said.

Skyler Hutto, attorney for Adams, begged to differ in original reports.

 “They’re claiming that even though the transfer of funds is direct, that benefit of the funds is not direct, Hutto said. “I don’t think they dispute that the money goes directly from one source to the other. It’s our contention that the constitution is pretty straight forward that when you’re getting into that direct transfer of monies, you’re violating this direct benefit proposition that we have codified in our constitution.”

The court eventually agreed that SAFE grants did constitute a direct transfer of public funding, since they were transferred from the State Treasury through an online portal, especially since funding from the Coronavirus Aid Relief and Economic Recovery Act — the original source of funding — can only be distributed to entities and not individuals, according to the court opinion.

"We believe today’s decision errs on several essential points,” said a statement from Palmetto Promise Institute. “As a consequence, thousands of moderate and low-income South Carolina families hurt by COVID have been denied the relief they need for their children’s education. We will review the decision in concert with the governor’s office to determine next steps. We will continue to fight for these families."

McMaster also echoed that he would continue to find an avenue for opening up educational opportunities for lower income families or special needs students at public and private kindergartens, schools and colleges in a recent statement. He also pointed to how the ruling would impact his July 9 announcement of plans to use $2.4 million in CARES Act funding to aid eight historically Black colleges and universities across the state.

“In addition to the lower income families directly affected by this decision, it may also place in jeopardy millions of CARES Act dollars recently appropriated by the General Assembly to directly reimburse independent private colleges and HBCUs. We will request the court to reconsider this important decision,” McMaster said in the statement.