COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — The South Carolina House moved to allow the repeal of a constitutional prohibition on funding private schools with public dollars as a Republican-backed voucher plan advances in the General Assembly.
Conservative states have renewed the push to create taxpayer-funded programs helping parents pay for religious and other private educational alternatives. Like their counterparts nationwide, South Carolina Republicans have named “school choice” a top priority this session.
Earlier this month, the state Senate passed one such program that would establish taxpayer-funded scholarship accounts for private schools available to poor and middle-class families.
But a 19th century amendment to the state Constitution threatens the effort. On Tuesday, House Republicans took the first step to remove the potential roadblock to a long-sought policy.
With a 83-27 vote, the South Carolina House got the two-thirds majority necessary to put the amendment on the ballot at the next general election. If the change gets the same level of support in the state Senate, voters will have the opportunity to strike the ban on direct state aid to religious or other private educational institutions.
The constitutional provision commonly known as the “Blaine Amendment” has recently come under fire. Republican Gov. Henry McMaster in 2021 filed a lawsuit after it held up his attempt to direct federal COVID-19 relief toward the state’s private, independent and religious schools.
Conservative groups backing McMaster’s challenge have noted the provision’s bigoted origins. In 1875, U.S. Rep. James Blaine, a federal lawmaker from Maine, sought to prevent public funding to “sectarian” schools during a time of widespread anti-Catholic prejudice. While he failed to win enough support for a constitutional amendment on the federal level, many states followed suit.
Then-governor Ben Tillman led the charge in South Carolina. Tillman first gained statewide prominence in 1876 while leading a white mob that killed four Black men and intimidated Black voters. He later built his political career as a white supremacist committed to rolling back any rights gained by Black people in the wake of the Civil War.
Democratic Rep. Justin Bamberg — who has supported the removal of Tillman’s statue from Capitol grounds — said lawmakers should not equate the modern-day impact with the historic origins.
Democrats opposed opening the door for the state to direct taxpayer money to private schools. They argued state funds would be better spent bolstering the public education system.
“Until we get serious about fixing our public schools, you’re not accomplishing anything for our state,” said Democratic Rep. Russell Ott. “Our state’s future will sink or swim based on the way we educate all our children — not the ones who have the ability to get out.”
When asked last week about charges of hypocrisy in passing a so-called “constitutional carry” bill and then approving different changes to the state Constitution this week, House Speaker Murrell Smith dismissed the notion.
“I think you’re talking about apples and oranges,” Smith told reporters. “One is protecting the existing constitutional right. The other is amending the constitution.”
James Pollard 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.