After rebuke, Gov. McMaster changes plan for $20M in COVID-19 money


COLUMBIA - After being rebuked in court for trying to spend his share of federal COVID-19 money on private school tuition grants, South Carolina's governor wants to spend the money on early childhood education, job training and tutors for foster children instead.

Gov. Henry McMaster announced Tuesday how he will spend about $20 million of the $48 million set aside for him to spend at his own discretion. The governor has a May deadline to decide how to spend the rest of the grant money.

McMaster's initial plan announced in July was to spend most of the money on grants of up to $6,500 to help parents send children to private or religious schools which were providing in-school instruction when most schools across the state were still having virtual classes at least part of the time.

The state Supreme Court ruled in October that McMaster's plans broke the state constitution by sending public money to private schools. The decision also put on hold $2.4 million set aside by the governor for technology improvements to historically Black universities and colleges. McMaster has not announced if he will restore that money.

Supporters of McMaster's plans said more than 15,000 families expressed interest in grants. Opponents said the governor was using the pandemic to push school vouchers, which the Legislature has been unable to get full support for in more than a decade of debate.

The governor's new plan announced Tuesday sets aside $8 million for South Carolina technical colleges to allow 3,100 people who lost jobs in the pandemic to take classes for free for jobs in health care like certified nursing assistants or in manufacturing, criminal justice or computers.

McMaster also will spend $7 million to expand full-day pre-kindergarten for 4-year-olds. The program is free for families whose children are on Medicaid or make just under double the federal poverty level.

South Carolina's 4K program uses both private educators and public schools. McMaster said he will send $5 million to First Steps, which works with private programs, and $2 million to public schools through the state Department of Education. The governor said if public schools show more interest, he will give them more money.

McMaster's plan also gives $4.9 million to the South Carolina Department of Social Services to improve education in 74 group homes and for about 600 children living with foster families.

Most of the money will go to tutoring, although about $300,000 is set aside to provide better internet connections for group homes and give those children computer tablets and other devices.

Tuesday's news conference to announce his plans was McMaster's first public appearance since announcing Dec. 22 he contracted COVID-19. McMaster's office said he initially had "mild symptoms with a cough and slight fatigue" before recovering without any additional problems.

McMaster's wife tested positive before her husband and was asymptomatic, officials said.