News & Politics

As Public Schools Dither Over Reopening, S.C. Gov. McMaster Expands Private School Scholarships

(AP Photo/John Locher)

Last week, South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster announced that all public schools in the state were encouraged to reopen for in-person instruction following the Labor Day holiday. While this was not a mandate from the governor, his remarks did send a clear message.

Joined by several lawmakers but no educators, McMaster announced that all public schools are urged to restart in-person classes after Labor Day. It should be up to parents to decide whether to keep their children home or send them to school, McMaster said. The governor said his guidance is not a mandate but said he advised the state education department to deny any reopening plans that didn’t include five-day-a-week in-person instruction as an option.

This statement earned pushback from many districts and teachers’ groups that had been developing complex virtual-learning plans to submit to the state for approval. When asked about the concerns of teachers regarding their own health, McMaster had the following response:

I think everyone is scared about their own health and everyone else’s health. That’s why we’re all wearing masks. That’s why we’re all standing here distanced. We’re all in the same boat. There is no special group. The only ones that are in a special group are the eldery and those with those conditions a lot of people in the poorer parts of our state. We have concentrated on that. We understand that and that’s why we’re doing the things we’re doing in the nursing homes and otherwise.

Thank you, sir! If public school teachers are trying to prove they are not essential workers, they are doing a great job all over the nation. Somehow doctors, nurses, the cashiers at Walmart, and the customer service staff at Home Depot have dragged themselves to work throughout the pandemic.

Yet, teachers’ unions in California, North Carolina, and other states have released insane political demands such as defunding the police and enacting Medicare for All before they’ll return to school. They are proving nearly definitively that union leadership does not care about the children.

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After the governor’s remarks, some school districts announced they would be proceeding with opening plans that do not include full-time in-person instruction. Even the state superintendent of education refused to back McMaster’s request:

S.C. Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman, who rarely contradicts McMaster, said Wednesday she could not support returning all school children to in-person classes five days per week because the recommendation did not account for the rate of local COVID-19 spread. She declined McMaster’s invitation to attend the press conference, the governor said.

Amid the pushback, McMaster announced a solution to allow working and low-income families a new option. Through the governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund under the CARES Act, South Carolina is spending $32 million on SAFE grants. These are scholarships that will allow families with adjusted gross incomes up to 300% of the federal poverty level to send their child to a private school.

According to EdChoice president and CEO Robert Enlow :

“Gov. McMaster is putting families first during these difficult times. His SAFE Grants program will offer stability to working and low-income families by empowering them to access to educational choice.

“This innovative use of federal funds means students will be able to stay in their schools of choice while others may have access for the first time to educational opportunities that were previously out of reach. This also will help public schools that can ill afford to pay even more for students who would have to transfer back into that system if they lose access to their private school.”

“Our research has shown that 99 percent of South Carolina families live within a 30-minute drive of a private school, and 93 percent who qualify for free and reduced-price lunch live within a 20-minute drive. The biggest obstacle to access is cost, and this program helps clear that hurdle.”

The timing is excellent for working parents who meet the guidelines. Across the country, private schools are reopening while their public counterparts are not. These grants will give more parents the option to place their children in a full-time in-person program at a private school. Educators agree, even where schools are not reopening, that in-classroom learning is the superior option.

There are not too many upsides to a pandemic. However, the SAFE grant program in South Carolina will allow parents who qualify to have a greater choice in how to educate their children and allow many more families to send their children to a private school. That is a win, no matter when it happens.

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