SC Supreme Court rules against McMaster’s grants for private schools

Gov. McMaster opts to use most of his education relief funds to help families pay for private...
Gov. McMaster opts to use most of his education relief funds to help families pay for private school tuition(Jason Raven)
Updated: Oct. 7, 2020 at 6:30 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - The South Carolina Supreme Court has ruled against Gov. Henry McMaster, stopping him from using CARES Act money to fund private school scholarships.

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act created “Governor’s Emergency Education Relief,” or GEER funding, for each state.

McMaster tried to allocate $32 million of his GEER funds to grants for students to attend private schools, calling them Safe Access to Flexible Education Grants, or SAFE Grants.

SAFE Grants would be one-time tuition scholarships for 5,000 students across the state.

The governor said SAFE Grants were important to school choice, and he also praised private schools for opening up five-days a week in person.

The Orangeburg County School District, SCEA, and several others filed suit to stop the grant program. They believe giving public money to private education is unconstitutional.

Wednesday, the South Carolina Supreme Court sided with the plaintiffs.

The court ruled the grants are prohibited by the state constitution because they use public funds for the direct benefit of private educational institutions.

“This is an important decision that upholds the integrity of our public education system,” the plaintiffs' attorney, Skyler Hutto, said. “In a time when faith in the judicial system may be waning, the people of South Carolina can have confidence in their Supreme Court to protect them.”

McMaster issued the following statement:

"I remain committed to providing educational opportunity for lower income families and families with special needs at public and private kindergartens, schools, and colleges.

“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.”

The Palmetto Promise Institute, which was a defendant along with the governor in the lawsuit, also shared a statement:

“We believe today’s decision errs on several essential points. 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 plan to review the decision in concert with the Governor’s office to determine next steps and will continue to fight for these families.”

In the past, the governor argued the grants would have benefited the families, not the schools.

However, even that argument has been challenged.

Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-SC, sent a letter to the Department of Education on Monday saying it would be illegal to give GEER Funds directly to parents.

Clyburn said that under the CARES Act, only three categories of entities are authorized to receive GEER Funds:

  • Institutes of higher education
  • Local educational agencies
  • Education-related entities

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