I hope this Newsletter finds you well. The goal of this Newsletter is to keep you updated on what is happening in Columbia. If you have any questions or would like me to discuss a topic, please let me know.

Week in Review: March 21-25, 2022:

These are some of the bills that passed third reading in the Senate over the last week and were sent to the House (click on the link to see the text of the bill):

S.888 - Contractor's Voluntary Contribution. This is a piece of legislation that I filed in December of last year. I proposed a bill that would allow any building science, construction management, or civil engineer to voluntarily give $25 while renewing their contractor's license. These funds will go directly to colleges/universities that teach those degree programs. This is mirrored after similar legislation in Alabama and Florida. In Alabama, this raises over $800,000 annually for scholarships and degree enhancements.

If this is passed by the House, this bill would benefit Clemson University, The Citadel, the University of South Carolina, and South Carolina State University. A person renewing their license may either give to one of these universities specifically or designate that the funds be split between the universities based on enrollment in the degree program. Being that I was the primary sponsor of this legislation, I voted in favor.

S.1106 - General Reserve Fund Increase. This is a joint resolution to propose an Amendment to the South Carolina Constitution to increase the State General Reserve Fund from five (5%) percent of the general fund revenue of the last fiscal year to seven (7%) percent. It will also allow the Capital Reserve fund to be increased from two (2%) percent to three (3%) percent of the general revenue from the latest fiscal year. If adopted, this would allow the State to place more in reserve funds. Ultimately, any Constitutional amendment would have to be approved by the voters of this State. I voted in favor of this legislation.

S.1117 - Grain Producers Guaranty Fund. Once signed into law this will expand the South Carolina Grain Producers Guaranty Fund to include producers of cotton. An assessment of fifty cents per bale of cotton will be collected at the time and place of ginning. The bill would increase the fund ceiling from $4 million to $25 million for the point in which the assessment ceases. Currently this fund exists to protect numerous farm commodities in South Carolina. By expanding it to cotton, this self-insured fund will have a broader base and allow greater coverage to farmers. 

These are some of the bills that passed second reading in the Senate over the last week (click on the link to see the text of the bill):

S.1095 - Clemson University Regulatory Powers. One of the many duties that Clemson University has is to assist with agriculture. In doing so, Clemson will issue numerous regulations - often while the legislature is not in session. This bill will require that Clemson University's organization and powers over regulations promulgated by the Division of Regulatory and Public Service Programs be in accordance with the Administrative Procedures Act. That is a long way to say that Clemson can issue regulations to ban the Bradford pear tree, but they must appear before the SC Senate as soon as we return to session to have us approve the regulation. If we are in session, they must immediately come to us.

S.1092 - Law Enforcement Officer Training. A detention or correction officer will only have to be eighteen years of age in order to qualify. Finding people willing to serve as detention and correction officers is extremely difficult. Other states allow people as young as eighteen to serve in that position and the hope is that more of these jobs will be filled.

Legislation on the Horizon:

These bills are either currently in Committee or will soon be on the floor to be debated and voted on.

S.906 - Exploitation. This bill updates the definition of “exploitation” in the Omnibus Adult Protection Act to include the "exercising of extreme undue influence over, coercive persuasion of, or psychologically damaging manipulation" of a vulnerable adult that results in physical or emotional harm or the loss of financial assets, disrupts a parent-child relationship, leads to a deceptive or exploitive relationship or isolates the vulnerable adult from family or friends. Undue influence means the excessive persuasion that causes a vulnerable adult to act or refrain from acting by overcoming the vulnerable adult’s free will that results in inequity. This is part of a series of bills the Senate has passed to give vulnerable adults greater protections and safeguards.

H.3509 - Extended Foster Care Program. This will allow a person in the foster care system to "opt-in" and stay in the system until they turn twenty-one. The reality is that too many children turn 18 and are no longer given the support system they need to succeed. This voluntary system will change that. It will require the Department of Social Services to provide placement in a licensed foster family home, childcare institution, or in an approved of licensed supervised independent living setting. Within thirty days of entering a voluntary placement agreement, the department shall initiate proceedings for the review of agreement and processes for judicial hearings. The bill establishes additional provisions for the execution of the extended foster care program. 

S.935 - Education Scholarship Accounts:

Debate on this legislation began last Wednesday. It will continue through most of this week. You will note that I have made a few additions/changes to my original post from last week. A large of part has stayed the same though. Changes are in red to make it easier for you to see the new material. In order to be eligible to receive funding an eligible student must:

  • be a state resident;
  • have attended an SC public school the prior school year, or be age 5 on or before September 1st; and
  • meet one of the following additional criteria: 
  • Medicaid eligible;
  • Has an IEP;
  • Received an ESA scholarship the prior year; or
  • Has a sibling in the same household who receives an ESA scholarship.

Beginning in school year 2023-24, the number of students that may be approved for a scholarship will be capped at 5,000 and over a three year period it will increase to 15,000 students. In order to participate in the ESA program a parent will have to:

  • Submit the standard application and required documentation (and annually thereafter);
  • ­Sign an agreement annually agreeing to comply with all provisions, including not to participate in homeschooling or to enroll their child full-time in the resident public school district; and
  • For a child with a disability acknowledgement of an understanding of any rights being given up under IDEA. 

The ESA agreement terminates automatically if the child is no longer domiciled in SC, and funds revert to the ESA Fund. A parent/guardian will have access of roughly $7,000 $6,000 annually to use for tuition and fees of approved services providers/schools, instructional materials, tutoring services provided by the State Department of Education, contracted services approved by the Department, technological devices, certain examination fees, educational services for students with disabilities, approved contract services from public school districts, transportation (up to $750), and account management funds. So where is the $6,000 coming from you ask? Excellent question.

The $6,000 comes out of the money that the State gives local school districts on a per pupil basis. To make this a bit easier, school districts receive funding from basically three sources - local (property tax), state and federal. If a child is eligible for the ESA Fund then basically the $6,000 that would have gone to the school district is redirected to the fund, and then on to the service provider/school. The local and federal funding would remain with the school district. Will that decrease the amount of money schools have? Again, an excellent question.

The answer to that question depends on how you look at it. Yes, the district will receive $6,000 less if a child qualifies for an ESA. So the district will have $6,000 less to spend. On the other hand, the district no longer has to teach that child or provide any services to that child. Additionally, the district, who is no longer providing those services to the child, gets to keep the local money and federal money - which means that in theory the district will have more money to spend on a per pupil basis.

In order to have accountability (and to be able to compare progress) the following measures have been put in place:

  • students in grades 3 – 12 must complete the same assessments as public school students, at no cost to the school or students;
  • annual documentation of academic progress for each student;
  • service providers providing full-time instruction to administer norm-referenced test; 
  • Providers may be removed if they fail to provide individual test score data from previous year, and may be barred if fail to comply with provisions or do not provide student with the services funded; and
  • Specifies provider and parental expectations for ensuring assessments are administered, and that test results are collected and reported.

Currently, eight states have some form of ESA accounts. Those include Arizona, Mississippi, Tennessee, Florida, North Carolina, West Virginia, Indiana and New Hampshire. I have been able to do some research on the ESA program in Arizona.

First, Arizona has a population of 7.2 million people vs. South Carolina's population of 5.2 million. In the second quarter of 2021, 9,718 students were receiving ESA type scholarships in Arizona. When you break that population down by eligible category (I only compared categories that exist in the current Senate bill) it looks like this:

  • Special Needs - 59%
  • Sibling receiving ESA funds - 15%
  • Attending a Failing School - 5%
  • Previously in ESA Program - 1%
  • Other - 20% (includes Military, legally blind/deaf, residing on reservation)

Based on this data, it would appear that the vast majority of students who use ESA type programs in Arizona are special needs students. As of today, S.935 does not use "special needs" as a category - however it does use IEP (Individualized Education Plan) as a criteria. I am attempting to determine how much overlap exists between those two categories in Arizona. I also want to insure that students who are truly special needs can have access to the ESA and that the service providers/schools must accept them.

If we assume that less than 10,000 students use ESA scholarships in Arizona, it makes sense that less than 10,000 would use them in South Carolina (which has a about 2 million less people). Another state which has an ESA plan is Florida. In Florida over 106,000 students are enrolled in the program (Florida has a population of 21.4 million people. I could not find documentation breaking down the specific eligibility categories - like Arizona - but I was able to find the following information for the breakdown based on student race and ethnicity:

  • Hispanic - 38%
  • African-American - 29%
  • White - 27%
  • Other - 6%

Additionally, 66% of all Florida ESA eligible students attend a religious private school, while 34% attend non-religious private schools.

So what does all this mean? Quite simply it means that I am studying this bill and trying to make the best decision that I can. The Fort Mill School District and the Lancaster County School District both do well academically. I don't believe we will see a massive outflow of students (and tax dollars attached to them) from local schools to service providers/schools. However, there are areas of our State where children have very few education opportunities. Poverty is rampant, and drop-out rates soar well over 50%. Those children deserve an opportunity to succeed.

Some will say that more money is needed in those districts. I disagree. By example I would point out that the Fort Mill School District (based on numbers provided by the SC Department of Education) spends about $9,962 per pupil. The Lancaster School District spends about $10,524 per pupil. In contrast, one of the worst performing Districts in our State, the McCormick County School District, spends $18,119 in per pupil funding. Another district, less than a 30 minute drive down I-77 is the Fairfield County School District which spends $19,370 per pupil. To highlight the contrast between these districts here are some quick stats:

Percentage of Students who Meet or Exceed Grade Level Expectations in English Language Arts:

Fairfield County School District - 31%
Fort Mill School District - 67.7%
Lancaster County School District - 42.4%
McCormick County School District - 16%

Percentage of Students who Meet or Exceed Grade Level Expectations in Math:

Fairfield County School District - 25.1%
Fort Mill School District - 64.9%
Lancaster County School District - 41.5%
McCormick County School District - 13.8%

Students in the Graduation Cohort who are College or Career Ready:

Fairfield County School District - 46.3%
Fort Mill School District - 83.2%
Lancaster County School District - 57.7%
McCormick County School District - 41.5%

That data alone paints a picture of students who are not able to reach their potential. There are numerous reasons for this - the main one being poverty. But even with additional funds our schools aren't producing the desired outcome - that a student can achieve at an adequate level and is either ready to go to college or begin a career track.

I have filed an Amendment to this legislation to allow a school district to opt-out of accepting students from other districts. A District like Fort Mill, which is already overcrowded, should not be forced to allow students from other districts to attend. If passed, my amendment will insure that cannot happen. Additionally, an amendment has been offered which would mirror the PACE legislation that many school choice supporters prefer. That amendment is a "poison pill" as there are not enough votes to pass PACE.

I would love to receive your feedback on this issue. If you are interested where I got this data you can look HERE and HERE. I don't think it is simply black or white or easy. This is complicated with multiple layers. I look forward to hearing from you.

New Indy:

Based on conversations that I have recently had with DHEC officials we are closing in on an Order from DHEC regarding water pollution at New Indy. DHEC officials has stated that we will meet before that Order is issued so that I can provide feedback. As we await this action by DHEC I would ask that you continue to file reports if you have an issue with the odor. This process has been slower than I would have liked, but it is important that it is done right and that the conclusions reached actually fix the problem. I will continue to keep you updated.

Thank you for believing in me and allowing me to represent District 16 in Columbia. Again, if you have any questions, or you hear something and have a question, give me a call. My personal cell number is 803-984-0126.

Thank you again for everything,

Michael Johnson