McMaster directs $32M in pandemic aid to private schools

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COLUMBIA — South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster announced Monday he is allocating $32 million of federal relief money related to the coronavirus outbreak in tuition grants for students attending private schools across the state.

Accompanied by state officials and parents at Hampton Park Christian School in Greenville, McMaster said he expects the funds to cover about 5,000 grants of up to $6,500 for students to attend parochial, private and independent schools in the upcoming academic year.

Students from households with an adjusted gross income of up to 300% of the federal poverty level are eligible for the grant.

The one-time program aims to help families whose finances have taken a hit from the pandemic's economic fallout. The governor said enrollment in the state's private and independent schools is estimated to decline by up to 20% this year because parents cannot afford tuition. Some 50,000 South Carolina students currently attend such schools.

"If we don't have a strong education system for all of our children, then we will never achieve the great prosperity that we have possible," McMaster said.

The funds are so far the largest sum McMaster has publicly portioned out from the Governor's Emergency Education Relief Fund, a $48 million discretionary fund awarded through the federal CARES Act. Earlier this month, the governor announced $2.4 million in technology upgrades for the state's eight historically Black colleges and universities.

Schools eligible for the new funds could also receive federal CARES money through a rule announced by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos last month, requiring public school districts to set aside a portion of their federal aid for private K-12 schools. That rule is being challenged in federal court by five states including California.

The South Carolina funds are seen as a boon for the state's school choice movement. Ellen Weaver of Palmetto Promise Institute, a conservative think-tank in the state, lauded the governor for implementing "the largest new education choice program in the country this year."

Public education groups and some state Democrats criticized McMaster's program, saying that the funds should be directed to the state's most disadvantaged students.

The Palmetto State Teachers Association argued that federal public dollars will flow to independent schools not subject to public accountability standards that are also allowed to deny admission to students based on criteria such as religion or disability status.

"At a time where South Carolina's public schools are faced with unprecedented operational challenges due to the coronavirus pandemic, these funds could be better used by ensuring our public schools have as many resources as possible to ensure a safe return to in-person instruction when public health conditions make it possible to do so," the teachers' group said in a statement Monday.

McMaster's announcement comes days after the governor drew ire from educators across the state when he called for schools to open five days a week for face-to-face instruction, even as the spread of the virus showed little sign of slowing.

COVID-19 cases have spiked in the state since Memorial Day, with health officials reporting 1,445 new confirmed cases Monday. The state now has reported a total of 71,213 confirmed cases and 1,147 deaths, including 1,713 confirmed cases and 33 deaths from Sumter County, 579 cases and 47 deaths in Clarendon County and 393 cases and 24 deaths in Lee County.

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Liu is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.