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Fight over private school grants could be heading to S.C. high court

Published: Aug. 6, 2020 at 7:32 AM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - The battle over grants that would help pay for private school tuition across the state might be heading to the South Carolina Supreme Court.

Opponents of Gov. Henry McMaster’s Safe Access to Flexible Education grants, also called SAFE grants, filed a lawsuit last month. It came after McMaster allocated $32 million of GEER funds, which stands for Governor’s Education Emergency Relief funds, to the grant program that provides one-time scholarships to middle- and low-income students wanting to attend private schools.

An Orangeburg circuit judge heard the case last Wednesday but didn’t make a decision. On Tuesday, opponents of the SAFE grants filed a petition to take the case directly to the South Carolina Supreme Court. It’s something attorneys on both sides support, saying that reaching a resolution to the case is critical as the start of school approaches.

“We all know that school is coming in just a few weeks,” said Daniel Suhr, an attorney at the Justice Institute and the lead attorney for the Palmetto Promise Institute, who is a defendant in the case.

Both the plaintiffs’ and defendants’ attorneys said that a resolution is necessary so that the money can be utilized for its intended purpose: to provide emergency education relief as students head back to the classroom.

“There are a lot of families — thousands of South Carolina families — who want to use this program to access new educational options for their children and, unfortunately right now, they are stuck in this legal limbo where they just don’t know if this program is going to be available,” Suhr said.

“It was meant to be emergency relief for schools — public schools — so we would like to have this case resolved as well so it can be spent properly on those schools,” said Skyler Hutto, the lead attorney representing the plaintiffs in the case.

Hutto said there are now six plaintiffs on the case including Dr. Thomasena Adams, the Orangeburg County School District, and the S.C. Education Association. Hutto said that the SAFE grants aren’t constitutional and he filed the petition on Tuesday to the South Carolina Supreme Court.

“I’m hoping these funds can be available for public schools here as they are opening,” Hutto said.

Hutto said that the case could bypass the circuit courts because it’s a matter that addresses public interest and it involves an important constitutional question. He added their main argument is that the grants violate South Carolina’s constitution by giving public dollars directly to private schools.

“They stated that the funds are transferred directly from the state to the school,” Hutto said.

However, Suhr, the attorney representing the organization that McMaster tasked with facilitating the grant applications and is also a defendant, disagrees.

“It’s children, it’s students, who are the beneficiaries of this program,” Suhr said.

He said the grants give families a choice on which schools fit their child best.

The Orangeburg County Circuit Judge who presided over last week’s hearing renewed the temporary restraining order for another 10 days. He also released control of the case if the Supreme Court decides to take it up. There’s no deadline on when the S.C. Supreme Court needs to respond to the petition or whether or not they will take the case.

If the Supreme Court chooses not to hear the case, it will go back to the circuit court for a final ruling.

The temporary restraining order on the funds will expire in nine days

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