South Carolina Supreme Court rules against McMaster's school-choice program

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The South Carolina Supreme Court has struck down Gov. Henry McMaster’s SAFE Grants program, which would provide scholarships to enable families struggling financially because of the COVID-19 pandemic to keep their children in nonpublic schools.

The court issued a unanimous decision Wednesday after hearing arguments in the case last month.

McMaster’s SAFE Grants program, funded with federal COVID-19 relief dollars, would provide one-time grants of up to $6,500 to low-income students to be used toward tuition at private and independent schools.

The Blaine Amendment in South Carolina’s Constitution prohibits state funds from going directly to private schools but does not ban public funds from going to private schools indirectly. Arguments before the Supreme Court centered on whether federal funds at McMaster’s discretion constitute public funds and whether those funds should be permitted to go to private institutions.

“We hold the Governor’s allocation of $32 million in GEER funds to support the SAFE Grants Program 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,” the state Supreme Court’s decision reads.

McMaster said Wednesday afternoon he plans to ask the court to reconsider the decision.

“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,” McMaster said. “We will request the Court to reconsider this important decision.”

The SAFE Grants program was projected to provide scholarships to about 5,000 South Carolina students. Since the program was announced, more than 15,000 families expressed interest in the program.

“We believe today’s decision errs on several essential points,” said Lawson Mansell, a spokesperson for the Palmetto Promise Institute, a conservative policy group that would help facilitate the scholarships and a named defendant in the case. “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.”

Mansell said the Palmetto Promise Institute plans to review the court’s decision in concert with the governor’s office to determine next steps.

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