On Wednesday, the South Carolina Supreme Court ruled that Governor Henry McMaster’s attempt to give $32 million in CARES Act funds to create a grant program to pay tuition for students wishing to attend private schools was unconstitutional.
“We hold the Governor's decision constitutes the use of public funds for the direct benefit of private educational institutions within the meaning of, and prohibited by, Article XI, Section 4 of the South Carolina Constitution,” said the S.C. Supreme Court’s official ruling on their website.
In an official statement from his office, McMaster said he remains committed to providing educational opportunity for lower income families and families with special needs at public and private kindergartens, schools, and colleges.
“In addition to the lower income families directly affected by this decision, it may also place in jeopardy millions of CARES Act dollars recently appropriated by the General Assembly to directly reimburse independent private colleges and HBCUs. We will request the Court to reconsider this important decision,” McMaster said.
In July, McMaster announced he was creating Safe Access to Flexible Education (SAFE) Grants, a $32 million allocation to pay the tuition of students wanting to attend private, parochial, or independent schools in the state.
The grants would have been funded by monies received through the CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Act. Within the CARES Act was a component that went directly to governors to use at their discretion for education purposes, McMaster's office said.
The monies were to be a one-time, needs-based grant of up to $6,500 to help or subsidize the 2020-2021 tuition for eligible students. Approximately 5,000 grants were to be funded, McMaster said in July.
Immediately after his announcement, Orangeburg-based educator Thomasena Adams, and her attorney filed an injunction against McMaster, saying that his use of the CARES funds for the benefit of private schools was a direct violation of the state constitution.
Joining her in the lawsuit were the Orangeburg County School District and teacher group the S.C. Education Association.
In his final issued opinion, Chief Justice Donald Wayne Beatty said that the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have been “unfathomable.”
“While not an inclusive list, COVID-19 has taken precious lives, taxed our health care system, impacted our economy, and caused us to alter our court operations. Our system of education has not been spared as we have witnessed teachers valiantly work to adapt to different methods of educating South Carolina's children,” Beatty said. “This crisis has created unprecedented challenges for the leaders in our state government. The Governor has faced issues that have never been presented to any other administration. We recognize and fully appreciate the difficulty of making decisions that impact our entire state during this public health emergency.
Despite the pandemic’s issues, he said the court still had important responsibilities.
“Even in the midst of a pandemic, our State Constitution remains a constant, and the current circumstances cannot dictate our decision. Rather, no matter the circumstances, the Court has a responsibility to uphold the Constitution,” Beatty said.