COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — State attorneys told a judge Wednesday that South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster is withholding pandemic relief funds to the state's historically Black colleges and universities following a lawsuit over his plan to send $32 million in tuition grants to private schools.
Orangeburg County Circuit Court Judge Edgar W. Dickson heard arguments in the suit alleging that the distribution of the funds would go against the South Carolina Constitution, which prevents public dollars from directly benefiting religious or other private education institutions.
McMaster unveiled the plan for Safe Access to Flexible Education, or SAFE, grants earlier this month at a religious school in Greenville. The governor said the program would cover about 5,000 grants of up to $6,500 for students to attend private schools this academic year and help parents who could not afford the expense otherwise, effectively creating a one-time voucher program.
McMaster maintains the program is legal. “Federal coronavirus relief cannot, and should not, be denied to any citizen in need,” McMaster spokesman Brian Symmes said last week.
The SAFE grants, seen as a boon to the school choice movement, were the largest allocation of McMaster's $48 million discretionary fund through the federal coronavirus relief package. He had also directed $2.4 million in technology upgrades to the state's eight HBCUs.
Days after the announcement, an Orangeburg County resident named Thomasena Adams sued McMaster and the Palmetto Promise Institute, a think tank listed as the owner of the online portal for the grants program, in state court. Adams is represented by Skyler Hutto, son of Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg.
Last week, Dickson temporarily blocked the distribution of SAFE grants. State attorneys said the governor has also halted the $2.4 million to HBCUs as some of those schools are private.
The discretionary funds wouldn't be the only ones at risk if a judge rules in favor of the plaintiffs, the state argued. Multiple other established programs — some of which have existed for decades — direct funds in a similar way to the SAFE program, attorneys said, including higher education tuition grants, lottery scholarships and the South Carolina First Steps program.
Plaintiffs argued the state would directly transfer money to the private schools in a breach of state law. By ignoring public schools in the new program, McMaster was violating part of the constitution that says the state has a duty to provide for public education, Hutto said.
State attorneys said as the legislature passes a budget every year to fund education, the governor would not take away money from public schools by using discretionary funds for the program. They said Adams, the named plaintiff, would not be harmed by the distribution of the funds because she is not a teacher, parent or student. Court filings identified Adams as a taxpayer who has worked for more than 15 years in public education.
McMaster's announcement of the SAFE grants came shortly after the governor declared that all schools should aim to provide five days of in-person learning a week starting this fall, as teachers have pushed against school reopenings out of a concern for their safety in the pandemic.
Public education advocates have criticized McMaster's recent actions, and said the new voucher program would lack accountability.
The timeline for court proceedings will be rushed as schools prepare to open by Labor Day, and state attorneys said they might file for a hearing directly with the state Supreme Court. McMaster intends to appeal if a judge rules against the state, he told reporters Wednesday afternoon.
“We think it’s perfectly legal under the Constitution,” McMaster said.
Also Wednesday, the state Department of Education announced it had received $15 million through a separate grant in federal pandemic relief funds to support remote learning efforts.
Michelle 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.