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A Failed Experiment: Georgia’s Tax Credit Scholarships for Private Schools

posted May 25, 2012, 2:23 PM by Bill Duncan
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A thorough study of the Georgia program.  Their conclusion:

Since 2008 all sectors of public education in Georgia from pre‐kindergarten
through college have struggled with reduced state revenues. During the last three years
(2008–2010), state appropriations for K‐12 public education in Georgia have been
reduced by a total of $1.46 billion. There have also been deep budget cuts in higher
education. During this same period, for the first time since 1962, Georgia has financed
private elementary and secondary schools through state tax credits amounting to more
than $72 million.

In the 2011 session, the Georgia General Assembly continued to reduce state
support for public education. Every sector of public education in Georgia—pre‐
kindergarten, K‐12, and higher education—suffered deep cuts in the state budget adopted
by the General Assembly. The Georgia Pre‐K program was cut by $54 million despite
strong evidence that it is saving taxpayer funds. The state’s K‐12 budget for public schools
was reduced by approximately $110 million. Cuts in the state budget for higher education
amounted to more than $174 million.

The legislature also effectively reduced by 10 percent the amount of most HOPE
scholarships. In addition, with added fees and an additional three‐percent tuition hike,
most students attending the state’s public colleges and universities this fall will pay about
nine percent more in college costs with or without a HOPE scholarship.

The Georgia legislature also passed into law an automatic increase in tax‐credit
funding for private school scholarships that will rise in tandem with the cost of living.
Georgia’s program on tax credit scholarships for private schools was the one and only
education program that received an annual increase in state funding. And it is the only
state‐supported educational program that does not account publicly for its use of tax
funds or its educational impact.  

This exceptional support for Georgia’s K‐12 private schools has been sustained
amid hard economic times on the public promise that this experiment in tax‐funded
educational choice will help the state’s neediest students who are trapped in low
performing public schools and, at the same time, save Georgia taxpayers money.  

Based on all available evidence, it is clear that the state’s investment in private
schools through SSOs has failed to achieve its primary and most important aims. Instead
of providing the state’s neediest children trapped in low performing public schools with 60
new, affordable opportunities for a good education, SSOs have carried out the law, in
large part, as a means to publicly finance the private education of relatively well‐to‐do
students, many of whom are already in private schools. Instead of saving tax funds, each
of the private school scholarships in Georgia’s state’s tax credit has cost the state
government more than twice what it would spend to send a student to public school. 
 
These failures are only the beginning of the problems with tax credit scholarships
for private schools in Georgia. The law appears to deliberately prevent any level of public
accountability for how the tax‐funded program is operated. It criminalizes public
disclosure of basic information. It makes it extremely difficult—at times virtually
impossible—to ascertain specific information that, if hidden or made inaccessible in the
public schools, would be a matter of public outrage.

As a result, during the first three years in which private student scholarship
organizations have raised and used tax‐diverted funds to support scholarships at private
schools, SEF has discovered a wide range of serious problems and questions about
whether SSOs and private schools are complying with the basic provisions of state law.
Many of these problems do not appear to be accidental. They often appear to be
deliberate attempts to ignore or evade the law and its original, honorable goals.  

No private school receiving a tax‐funded scholarship is accountable for how well it
spends public funds to educate a student. No SSO is really accountable for its
expenditures. In effect, the State of Georgia has a program that is handing millions of tax
dollars to anyone who can create a nonprofit organization and can sell private school
parents and their friends on diverting tax dollars to support the private schools their
children attend. It has allowed these private salesmen to be virtually unaccountable for
how they raise and use taxpayer funds for private education.  

The Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education (founded in 1992 by the
Georgia Chamber of Commerce and the Georgia Economic Developers Association)
recently summed up the issue well: “Georgia scholarship and tax credit programs . . .
should be accountable to the public and show a return on investment to all Georgia
taxpayers.”

So far, Georgia has ignored what other states have learned in trying to assure that
tax‐diverted funds for education are used for the public good—not diverted for private
purposes. Georgia alone among the states with tax credit programs has failed to create a
program that has any real chance of successfully helping low income students in public
schools. And in failing to provide any meaningful information by which parents can
compare how public and private schools educate children with similar backgrounds,
Georgia’s SSO law has assured that parental choice often can be nothing better than a
guessing game.  

As a consequence, Georgia’s SSO program appears to be far more about doling out
tax dollars to private schools and far less about improving the educational choices for
needy students in public schools.  

The available evidence strongly suggests that relatively few low income students
are receiving tax‐funded scholarships to attend private schools. The preponderance of
evidence also indicates that relatively few African American or Hispanic students are
benefitting from these tax‐funded scholarships. In addition, based on available data, it
appears that the state tax credits are primarily sustaining or increasing economic and
racial segregation in Georgia’s private schools, which are far more segregated by race,
income, and religion than the state’s public schools
.  
In every important respect, the evidence points toward the conclusion that
Georgia’s experiment in financing private choice with tax dollars to improve the state’s
education has been a devastating failure of policy and practice.  

It is disheartening to consider how the $72 million in tax revenue that the SSO law
has already diverted from the state treasury might have been spent to better assist low
income students in public schools during a time of severe cutback in public education.
Every parent and grandparent of Georgia’s public schoolchildren knows how much each
public school could have wisely used even a small, additional amount of funds during the
last three years.  

At a time when the state government continues to reduce all facets of public
school funding, it makes no sense to continue a failed program that is diverting tax dollars
from a state treasury that cannot adequately support public education. At a minimum, the
State of Georgia should suspend the tax credit program until such time when there are
surplus revenues in the state treasury by which to finance a more honest and open62
educational experiment that offers a reasonable promise of success without denying state
funding to existing accountable programs of public education.  

If the state government decides to retry this kind of educational experiment in the
future, it should completely revamp the law and the program. One good place to begin
would be to consider the changes that Governor Sonny Perdue proposed and supported
for the existing program in 2010 (see page 9). His proposal would provide a better chance
for a more effective educational outcome. In addition, the neighboring state of Florida
offers an example of a tax‐credit educational program that has evolved and improved
over the last few years. As a public‐private venture, it has begun to require more effective
measures for public accountability and educational performance from all entities and all
private schools that take tax‐diverted funds to support student learning.  

Perhaps the best model for considering how to structure any future experiments in
school choice is already in the state. Today, in Georgia pre‐kindergarten, both public
schools and private centers deliver publicly financed education to four‐year‐olds across
the state under the same regulations and standards for accountability and educational
performance.

Improving education is vital to the future of all Georgians, and any significant
improvements in the coming years will require real changes and new choices in how and
where students learn. These changes inevitably involve a process of trial and error, as the
State of Georgia explores the best ways to improve education, especially for the state’s
neediest, most vulnerable children. But improving education in Georgia also requires the
state to recognize if and when a trial, in fact, has become an error.  
Georgia’s tax‐credit program for private school choice has failed the state’s
children and Georgia taxpayers. It is time to end—or vastly mend—Georgia’s failed
experiment in tax credit scholarships for private schools.
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