School choice for rural South Carolina

Riverview Charter School in rural Beaufort County, South Carolina, is one of 298 schools in the state designated as rural fringe, which means they are 5 miles from an urban area of at least 50,000.

Editor’s note: This commentary from Jason Bedrick, a research fellow in the Center for Education Policy at the Heritage Foundation, and Matt Ladner, director of the Arizona Center for Student Opportunity and reimaginED executive editor, appeared Thursday on

“All children in South Carolina should have access to the highest quality education possible.” So declared Gov. Henry McMaster in recently proclaiming School Choice Week in South Carolina.

To that end, the South Carolina legislature is currently considering a proposal to give families greater freedom to choose learning environments that align with their values and meet their children’s individual learning needs.

The proposal would create education savings accounts (ESAs), letting families access about $6,000 in state funds to pay for private school tuition, tutoring, textbooks, online courses, special needs therapy and numerous other educational expenses. Ten states have already adopted ESA policies, including five in the last two years.

It’s not hard to understand why.

The pandemic — and especially district schools’ response to it — awakened parents to the need for education choice. Unnecessarily long school shutdowns, mask mandates and concerns over the politicization of the classroom have propelled public support for education choice policies, like ESAs, to all-time highs.

A recent poll of likely voters in South Carolina, conducted by the South Carolina Policy Council, found six in 10 supported the ESA proposal. Support among African American voters was even higher, at 68%.

But not everyone is on board. The teachers’ unions and their allies are doing everything they can to block families from accessing alternatives to the district school system.

In an effort to peel away votes from South Carolina legislators representing rural areas, ESA opponents are arguing that choice policies either don’t benefit rural areas or are harmful to rural district schools.

For example, state Sen. Nikki Setzer, D-Lexington, argues that students in rural areas can’t benefit from the ESA proposal because they supposedly lack private options. “What real option are we giving them? Are we gonna let Johnny in Bamberg drive to Richland County?” he asked recently, “Give me a break.”

Meanwhile, Carol Corbett Burris, executive director of the Network for Public Education, frets that education choice policies would supposedly create a “death spiral” for district schools, “especially in rural areas” because when “kids leave the system, they leave behind all kinds of stranded costs.”

These two claims — that there are no schooling options in rural areas and that rural schools are imperiled because so many students will leave for those options — are mutually exclusive. They cannot both be true, but they can both be — and indeed are — false.

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BY Special to NextSteps