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Governor Accused of Improperly Using Federal COVID-19 Aid to Fund Vouchers

By Andrew Ujifusa — October 05, 2020 2 min read
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Congressional Democrats say South Carolina’s Republican governor seems to be violating the federal coronavirus relief law by sending federal aid directly to parents so they can pay for their children to attend private schools.

In a Monday letter to U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., and Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., the chairman of the House education committee, say the Safe Access to Flexible Education (SAFE) program set up by Gov. Henry McMaster, which provides $32 million to fund scholarships to private schools, “appears to violate the plain text of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) as well as the Department’s related guidance.”

The SAFE program is supported by fund set up in the CARES Act, the federal coronavirus relief law enacted in late March, which included $3 billion for a Governor Emergency Education Relief fund to support K-12 and higher education during the pandemic. As we reported in July, some GOP governors used that fund to support private school choice amid some parents’ desire for in-person learning, as well as some concerns about the impact of the virus on the long-term viability of private schools.

However, advocates for public school said this money would be better spent on helping public schools reopen safely.

South Carolina’s SAFE program grants of up to $6,500 to about 5,000 students in families that have household incomes at less than 300 percent of the federal poverty level. This money can be used to enroll in private schools.

However, Clyburn and Scott told DeVos that the list of entities that the CARES Act says are eligible to get money from the Governor Emergency Education Relief does not include parents. Here’s list of the permissible “uses of funds” in the CARES Act’s fund for governors:

They also pointed to guidance from DeVos’ department about this governors’ fund that says the following: “If Governors wish to provide scholarships, financial assistance or microgrants to students or teachers, they must provide a subgrant to an eligible entity, which could, in turn, provide scholarships or microgrants consistent with the CARES Act. A Governor is prohibited from awarding GEER funds to individuals.”

The crux of the issue seems to be the decision by McMaster to provide the money directly to parents, instead of to an entity like a state scholarship-granting organization that typically relies on tax credits to fund private school choice. South Carolina has a tax-credit scholarship program, but it caters to students with exceptional needs, according to the school choice advocacy and research group EdChoice.

Clyburn and Scott did not single out other governors, like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt, that have also used CARES money for governors to support private school choice. DeSantis used a share of his portion of the CARES education fund for governors to support the state’s existing school choice programs, which include tax-credit scholarships.

The two lawmakers asked for DeVos to review the legality of the SAFE program, and to turn over any communication between the U.S. Department of Education and McMaster’s office about the program by Oct. 16.

A spokesman for McMaster did not respond to a request for comment by Education Week’s deadline.

This isn’t the only dispute about the legality of McMaster’s SAFE program. The South Carolina Supreme Court heard arguments last month in a lawsuit challenging the legality of the plan.

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