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Gov. Henry McMaster

South Carolina's private and independent schools are about to get a significant boost from taxpayer-funded relief set aside to support education amid the coronavirus crisis. 

S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster will allocate $32 million from the Governor's Emergency Education Relief (GEER) fund to create one-time grants that will help parents pay tuition for their children at the state's private schools. 

During a press conference at Hampton Park Christian School in Greenville on Monday, McMaster said the new need-based grants – called SAFE grants – will designate up to $6,500 for students who qualify for tuition costs. McMaster said SAFE grants can be obtained by a family of four that makes "up to three times the poverty level" per year – an annual income of around $78,000.

McMaster claimed these funds  are needed by families who are struggling to afford private school fees after falling on hard times due to the coronavirus pandemic. As a result, enrollment in private schools has dropped 10-20%, McMaster said.  

"If we don't have a strong education system for all of our children, then we will never achieve the great prosperity we have possible," McMaster said. 

GEER funds, which are to be spent at a governor's discretion to offset coronavirus impacts to education, are funded by monies from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

South Carolina's GEER fund was $48 million, of which $32 million has been allocated for SAFE grants for private school tuition, and $2.4 million has been allocated to the state's eight historically Black colleges and universities for technology upgrades like software and electronic textbooks.

McMaster's choice to dedicate the majority of GEER funds to support private schooling received a mixed response Monday.

The Rev. Douglas Slaughter, an Aiken pastor who spoke during the press conference Monday, said the grants would give more students "hope."

"One of the difficulties that many of the people I work with have is trying to afford the education that they so deserve, particularly when they need a different atmosphere and a different climate, and teachers who can do things that other teachers may not be able to do," Slaughter said.

As the pastor of Second Baptist Church in Aiken, Slaughter also had a hand in creating Second Baptist Christian Preparatory School and is currently running for the Aiken County School Board District 8 representative seat. 

Chuck Saylors, president of the S.C. School Boards Association, called McMaster's choice "unfathomable." 

"The governor’s decision not to direct more than 65% of his emergency coronavirus funding to assist the most disadvantaged students, and instead give it to more advantaged students ... to stay in private schools is unfathomable," Saylors said in a prepared statement. "The cost of this program will benefit a few at the expense of many with no accountability to taxpayers that public schools are mandated to provide, including: the administration of pre- and post- assessments, reports on expenditures, and documentation of the impact of programs or services provided.”

Lt. Gov. Pamela Evette supported the governor's decision, claiming school choice is an important option for South Carolina parents to have.

"I think parents need the power to make the choice ... nobody loves their children more than their parents, and nobody is better qualified to make decisions about education than the parent of every single child," Evette said.

The Palmetto State Teacher's Association released a statement following the governor's comments, saying the organization was "disappointed" in the decision.

"Today’s action by the governor will allow federal public dollars to flow to independent schools that are not subject to public accountability standards," the statement reads. "These schools are also not accessible to all South Carolina students, as they can deny admission to students based on criteria such as a student’s religion, sexual orientation or disability status. The federal tax dollars used for the SAFE grant program are paid by all South Carolinians, meaning those dollars should only be used for schools that are open to all of our students."

Kristina Rackley is the health, education, and general assignment reporter with the Aiken Standard. To support local journalism and access more articles, subscribe by clicking here