One-size-fits-all education has long been a hindrance to South Carolina’s students. While wealthier families are able to afford unique and higher quality education, poorer families are forced to rely on a public system that often struggles to accommodate those on the margins. Those who suffer most are the least well off and those most in need of specialized education.
In recognition of this issue, Palmetto Promise Institute (PPI) has worked for years to promote expanded school choice in South Carolina. In the buildup to the 2020 legislative session, PPI had been driving a surprisingly bipartisan coalition geared towards expanding school choice through expanded scholarship programs. As an Education Scholarship Account (ESA)-style program loomed on the horizon, increased opportunity in education looked certain for thousands of students, many from working class and low-income families. But then came the coronavirus pandemic, and the Legislature’s attention shifted towards other priorities.
But that didn’t stop PPI from fighting for South Carolina’s children. Palmetto doubled down on their efforts to ensure that students would not be deprived of an education that best fits their needs at a time when flexibility in education was more important than ever. PPI knew that for a for a full COVID-19 recovery, educational choice is key.
While much attention was being paid to coronavirus’ effect on public schools, the impact on private schools was overlooked. Private schools serve over 50,000 students in the Palmetto State. PPI conducted a massive state-wide survey of private schooling associations to determine how much of an impact the pandemic was having on an already strained system. With many families unable to pay tuition, several private schools were applying for small business loans to avoid closure. Without private schools, families lose a valuable choice in where they can send their child to school. But private school closures will also have a significant impact on public schools. If private schools are forced to close, those students will have to enroll in the public system, which is already facing significant budget challenges of its own. To prevent a large migration of private school students to public schools, PPI encouraged policymakers to establish a scholarship program for needy families.
PPI’s survey efforts led the South Carolina Department of Education to ask Palmetto to do another survey to show the need for equitable allocation of resources to private schools.
Simultaneously, Palmetto used existing relationships to rally advocates for school choice and keep the issue a priority for legislators. PPI created videos highlighting the need for school choice and targeted those videos at state legislators.
Perhaps most powerfully, PPI told the story of Lila Mozingo, an eight-year-old girl with Down Syndrome. Lila’s parents, Mark and Padgett Mozingo, found the public system lacking in its ability to provide for her special needs, so they moved her to a private school. Mark and Padgett have since seen a remarkable difference in Lila’s learning. Though they worked hard to afford the schooling, and Lila even baked bread to help pay for it, the Mozingo’s had long understood that they were fortunate compared to so many others. An ESA program in South Carolina would help parents like Mark and Padgett be able to afford programs and education options that help their child reach their full potential.
Through this combination of powerful storytelling and credible research, combined with a comprehensive and coordinated communications plan, Palmetto Promise Institute was able to shift the Legislature’s focus back to school choice. PPI showed the benefits of private education for South Carolina families, and how South Carolina must maintain and expand education choices to recover from the coronavirus crisis.
Thanks to the efforts of Palmetto Promise, on July 20, 2020, the governor unveiled South Carolina’s Safe Access to Flexible Education (SAFE) Grants, a program designed to help meet the educational needs of working families suffering from the economic impacts of COVID-19. This $32 million SAFE Grants program will equip approximately 5,000 South Carolina students from working class and low-income families with access to up to $6,500 per student to pay for an education that meets their needs at this uniquely vulnerable time.
PPI’s President Ellen Weaver observed: “COVID-19 hasn’t discriminated between the learning and health of public and private school students and neither should we. Congress clearly intended all students to benefit from these resources. While public schools receive the lion’s share of CARES Act funding, every student’s education has been impacted, and every student deserves our help. I applaud Governor McMaster for his bold leadership in creating this program to support students wherever they learn.”