There’s a new education scholarship that will soon be available to South Carolina families, thanks to a new program signed into law this spring. The Education Scholarship Trust Fund Program will make private school, tutoring, and other personalized learning expenses a more affordable choice for economically disadvantaged children.
When is this new scholarship available, and who can apply?
Launching for the 2024-2025 school year, this $6,000 scholarship will phase in over three years. In the first year, it will be available to 5,000 low-income students (students whose household income doesn’t exceed 200% of the federal poverty guidelines). Participating students can use their scholarship account for private school tuition and other approved expenses, such as tutoring, technology, or even costs attached to attending a public school outside of their resident district. To be eligible, a student must have attended public school the previous year, or be a first-time kindergartner.
The scholarship program will grow in 2025-2026 to become available to up to 10,000 students whose families make up to three times the federal poverty level. By 2026-2027, families making up to four times the federal poverty level can apply, and as many as 15,000 students can receive scholarships. As a reference point, that’s just about 2% of the school-age population in South Carolina.
How are the scholarship funds delivered to families?
This new scholarship is South Carolina’s first education savings account program! This format means that participating families receive the $6,000 scholarship deposited in a secure online account.
Since the scholarship funds are made available directly to families rather than routed straight to a school they attend, families have flexibility and ownership over their education funds and choices about how to use them.
If a family doesn’t use all the funds in their account in a given school year, the funds roll over to the following school year, as long as the student remains active in the program.
What learning expenses can the scholarship be used for?
Perhaps the most popular qualifying expense that families will use their funds for is private school tuition and fees. A family can apply their funds to private school tuition as long as the school participates in the scholarship program. This means it must be located in South Carolina, meet certain curriculum and attendance requirements, and test annually, for example. A list of participating schools will be available for families by February 15 at the South Carolina Department of Education. To make sure the program does not interfere with private schools’ unique missions, the bill makes it clear that schools do not need to change their creeds, admissions policy, or curriculum in order to accept payments by a parent from a scholarship account.
But besides private school tuition, families can use their account for many other approved expenses to customize their child’s learning. These include tutoring approved by the department of education, computer hardware or other technology used primarily for educational needs, fees for advanced placement exams, college entrance exams, or industry certifications, occupational, behavioral, physical, and speech-language therapies for students with disabilities, transportation fees, and contracted services from a public school district, like afterschool tutoring, taking specific classes, or participating in an extracurricular activity.
What are the details on applying?
So, how will families apply when it comes time? The department of education is currently working on an application process for parents. The application window for scholarships for the 2024-2025 school year will be open between January 15 and March 15, 2024. Since applications will be processed in the order they are received, applying early may be a good idea! As long as parents submit a complete application, their child is eligible, funds are available, and the parent agrees to meet program requirements, a student will receive a scholarship.
Here are some of the specifics a participating parent must agree to:
The family must agree to use the program funds for approved expenses only.
They must ensure their student takes required assessments.
They must not participate in a home instruction program or enroll full-time in a public school in the resident school district while receiving the scholarship.
Note that a family can’t use the scholarship for homeschooling. But, they may use the scholarship to attend an approved online private school. If a family makes this choice, their scholarship student must participate in an in-person wellness check once per semester.
What else you should know
Keep in mind that this scholarship is a brand new program in South Carolina, essentially a pilot program. Lawmakers plan to evaluate the success of the education savings account program after three years. At that point, it might be expanded so even more families can apply.
While this is South Carolina’s first education savings account, the state also offers two other programs to support families who choose private school for their children with special needs: a tax-credit scholarship and a refundable tax credit.
There’s still a little time before applications will be available for this new program. So, watch for more details soon. If you live in South Carolina and have questions about how this new program applies to you, reach out to the Palmetto Promise Institute at [email protected].