SAFE Grants lawsuit moving to higher court

Miscellany/Doug Deas: Students at Charleston Catholic concentrate on their work in this file photo from the beginning of the school year, August 2019.

ORANGEBURG—Orangeburg County Circuit Court Judge Edgar Dickson has not issued a ruling in the SAFE Grants lawsuit, but has dismissed the State of South Carolina from the case. 

The dismissal of the state has no bearing on the case, which will continue forward.

Attorneys are currently awaiting a date to appear before the state Supreme Court. 

Judge Dickson’s ruling was issued Aug. 4 after hearing arguments from attorneys representing Gov. Henry McMaster, the State of South Carolina, the Palmetto Promise Institute and plaintiff Thomasena Adams on whether it is constitutional for the governor to provide $32 million in Governor Emergency Educational Relief funding to private schools.

Safe Access to Flexible Education (SAFE) Grants were announced July 20 by Gov. McMaster, but were promptly put on hold July 22 after a lawsuit was filed in Orangeburg County.

The grant program would help low-and middle-income families pay for tuition at participating independent schools. The program would make grants of up to $6,500 per student available to families for use toward tuition. Money for the grants would come from the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief (GEER) fund, allocated to the state because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Judge Dickson put a hold on the program after a lawsuit was filed by an Orangeburg County resident claiming that the SAFE grants violate the state constitution by using public funds for private or religious education. 

Catholic schools in the diocese are working with families to ensure students can remain as the case makes its way through the courts. Officials from the Diocese of Charleston said blocking the grants is a disservice to families in need who want Catholic education for their children.

The lawsuit “hurts low- and middle-income parents who want to continue sending their children to the school of their choice,” diocesan officials stated. “Every child deserves the opportunity to learn in the educational environment that best suits his or her needs, whether it is a public, private, or religious school.”

SAFE grants would be available to students from households with an adjusted gross income of 300% or less of the poverty level. For a family of four, that translates to an income of $78,000.

A total of 2,500 grants will be awarded on a first-come, first-serve basis, then distributed through a lottery after that to allocate the balance of available grant funds, as needed.

Principals at schools in the diocese said they hope the grants will be upheld because they would provide much-needed help to families.

“Most of our students are on tuition assistance and a lot of their parents have lost jobs or been furloughed because of COVID-19,” said Haymee Giuliani, principal at St. Joseph School in Anderson. “These grants would really help these families who already go to our school as well as others who have been applying because they want a Catholic school environment for their kids.”

The lawsuit does not halt the application process for SAFE grants. Parents can learn more about the program at https://mysceducation.org.