COLUMBIA, S.C. — A South Carolina state judge on Wednesday temporarily blocked a plan announced by Gov. Henry McMaster earlier this week to direct $32 million in pandemic relief funds for tuition grants at private schools across the state.
The restraining order issued by Orangeburg County Circuit Court Judge Edgar W. Dickson follows a lawsuit filed Tuesday alleging that the distribution of the funds would go against the South Carolina Constitution, which prevents public dollars from directly benefiting religious or other private education institutions.
The suit names McMaster and the Palmetto Promise Institute, a conservative think tank listed as the owner of the online portal for the grants program, as defendants. The plaintiff is identified as an Orangeburg County resident and taxpayer named Thomasena Adams who has worked for more than 15 years in public education.
McMaster spokesman Brian Symmes said in a statement that federal coronavirus relief should not be denied to citizens in need: “Working families in South Carolina are struggling to make ends meet during this pandemic and every parent should have the opportunity to choose the educational instruction that best suits their child’s needs."
A spokesman for Palmetto Promise declined to comment.
Flanked by school choice advocates, McMaster unveiled the plan for Safe Access to Flexible Education, or SAFE, grants Monday at a religious school in Greenville. The governor said the one-time program would cover about 5,000 grants of up to $6,500 for students to attend private schools this academic year and help parents who could not afford the expense otherwise.
The South Carolina funds were seen as a boon for the state’s school choice movement. Ellen Weaver of Palmetto Promise Institute on Monday lauded the governor for implementing “the largest new education choice program in the country this year.”
Public education advocates in the state have criticized the program, saying it would lack the accountability needed for public funds and leave out the state's most disadvantaged students in public schools. One group, SC for Ed, called the governor's plan "a sneaky way of creating subsidies for private education when the legislature has been unable to pass voucher legislation."
The funds are the largest sum McMaster has portioned out from the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund, a $48 million discretionary fund awarded through the federal coronavirus relief package.
The temporary order extends until July 29, when a hearing for the matter is scheduled.
Liu is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.