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Open enrollment bill would allow students to attend any public school in SC

Unlike other, more controversial school choice bills filed right now at the State House, S.544...
Unlike other, more controversial school choice bills filed right now at the State House, S.544 has broader support across teachers’ groups, including the Palmetto State Teachers Association, along with the South Carolina School Boards Association and the South Carolina Association of School Administrators.(WIS File)
Published: Feb. 7, 2022 at 6:23 PM EST|Updated: Feb. 7, 2022 at 9:15 PM EST
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WCSC) - In most school districts in South Carolina, students only have one option for which public school they attend: the one for which they are zoned, based on where they live.

But lawmakers at the State House are considering a bill that would allow students to attend any public school in the state, regardless of their home address.

Right now, about 20 school districts across the state offer intradistrict open enrollment, letting students who live in that district enroll in any of its public schools, including those outside their zone.

S.544 would apply that to every district in South Carolina, but it would also allow students to attend public schools outside the district where they live, giving the state’s students more options than they have ever had.

For example, students in Columbia could attend school in Myrtle Beach, and children living in Charleston could enroll in Greenville. More likely, they would opt for schools in a neighboring county or in another district within their home county.

“There’s a lot of focus on school choice right now,” Patrick Kelly of the Palmetto State Teachers Association said. “This is what school choice looks like.”

Unlike other, more controversial school choice bills filed right now at the State House, S.544 has broader support across teachers’ groups, including the Palmetto State Teachers Association, along with the South Carolina School Boards Association and the South Carolina Association of School Administrators.

“Our public schools serve every student that walks through their doors, and so giving families choice within a system that is truly open and accessible to everyone, I think, is a concept you’ll find that pretty much everyone can get behind,” Kelly said.

The bill would allow schools to set capacity limits and turn to a lottery if more non-resident students apply than they have room for or staff to teach.

It would also give preference to students from certain groups, including children whose parents are active-duty military and have moved because of military orders and kids who have been relocated in the foster care system.

But all students across the state would be eligible to apply to any public school.

“I see the difference in offering children the opportunity to follow their passion,” Sen. Dwight Loftis, R – Greenville, the bill’s lead sponsor, said during an education subcommittee meeting last week.

Public schools operate on a combination of money from the federal, state, and local governments.

Under the bill, federal and state dollars would follow kids to their new school’s district, but the legislation does not cover what happens with local dollars, which typically come from local property taxes. Local appropriations can make up nearly half a district’s funding, according to Kelly.

To offset non-resident families not paying local property taxes to help fund the schools their children attend, districts could charge tuition for non-resident students.

State lawmakers could set tuition limits or design a mechanism by which schools would get this money from these students or from their home districts.

“I would also offer that the state should look at ways to potentially mitigate any tuition costs through different state-level funding vehicles, but that’s going to be one of those details that has to be ironed out as this proposal makes its way through the legislative process,” Kelly said.

Senators on the subcommittee did not vote on advancing the bill last week, saying they need to address these local funding questions before the bill moves on.

“How many districts have we got, 80-something districts in the state? So if we adopt this policy, every one of them could come up with different fee structures,” Sen. Rex Rice, R – Pickens, asked during the meeting. How are we going to — I could see that being an issue?”

“We have some stuff that we’re going to talk about that other states have done in regards to that,” Sen. Scott Talley, R – Spartanburg, responded.

Currently, the bill does not set deadlines for enrollment periods or require transportation be provided for students attending a school outside their zone.

Kelly said the Palmetto State Teachers Association would like to see both of those addressed in amendments to the bill, which is still in the early stages in the process of becoming law.

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