Two recent controversies highlight the need for the General Assembly to reconsider the fiscal checks and balances in place as it expands school choice options for Georgia families. Read the three commentaries and then comment below:
By the AJC Editorial Board
The popularity of magnet schools and the surge in charter schools attest to the fact that many Georgia families want more options than the public school down the road.
But in their haste to expand choice, lawmakers failed to shore up a critical element: Accountability.
In its efforts to provide parents with more choices, the General Assembly created a state commission to approve charter schools over the objections of local boards of education. That effort was derailed by a 2011 state Supreme Court ruling. Voters will be asked to reinstate the commission in November.
Lawmakers also approved a private school tax credit designed to help poor kids in underperforming schools attend private schools.
Using the 2008 Qualified Education Income Tax Credit, individual donors may write off up to $1,000 of the donation as a dollar-for-dollar tax credit; couples may write off up to $2,500. And corporations may write off up to 75 percent of their total tax liability.
The donor may designate a specific school, and a scholarship organization sends the money there to go to a deserving student.
The donations come out of the state treasury, thus resulting in less money for the public good. So far, the law has diverted $143 million. Yet, the public knows nothing about those diverted dollars as the law does not track which schools or students received the funding or disclose anything about how the state money is spent by private organizations. There have been recent national news reports that parents were making donations to schools that were then repackaged as “scholarships” for their own students.
And how has the General Assembly responded? By drawing the shades.
To ensure that the public can’t peek, the Legislature amended the law last year to make it a criminal offense to disclose virtually any meaningful information about the program to the public. Georgia’s law fails to hold anyone accountable for how they spend these tax funds.
The law is so egregious that the Society of Professional Journalists gave the Georgia Legislature its Black Hole Award this year for the most heinous violation of the public’s right to know.
Fortunately, a joint House and Senate committee studying school funding acknowledged the abuses of the tax credit at its recent meeting and promised reforms, including a one-year public school attendance requirement and a clearer ban on donations to defray tuition costs for a donor’s child or relative. The Legislature should also remove the secrecy around the tax credits so the public has more confidence in the program.
The question of accountability was also raised this year by an audit of a well regarded Fulton County charter school, which found troubling conflicts of interest. The audit was done in the wake of Fulton Science Academy Middle School’s move to become a private school after it failed to win a renewal of its charter with the county or state.
Charter school advocates argue that checks and balances are in place — the parents. “If you think a given start-up charter school or private school is bad, do not send your children there. That is an accountability mechanism,” said Ben Scafidi, a senior fellow at the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice. “It is expensive to move out of a public school district if you think the district is doing a poor job. Leaving a start-up charter or private school to go to one’s neighborhood public school is costless.”
But the reality is that the financial practices of the Fulton school were so complicated that a professional audit team — costing Fulton taxpayers $35,000 — had a hard time tracking where money went.
When deep-dive audits are needed, the problem becomes who bears the cost, a point that the Legislature should clarify.
Now, according to Louis J. Erste, the state’s Charter Schools Division director, “If needed, such audits are the responsibility of the local school districts under whose control and management the charter school falls. Whether the local district chooses to withhold the cost of such an audit from the school’s funding is up to the district.”
Legislative initiatives to give families more choices have to be balanced by a clearer picture of who is paying for those choices, how much those choices cost and whether those choices benefit not only the recipients but the state.
Maureen Downey, for the Editorial Board
Rules are sufficient, oversight is lacking
By Monica Henson
Charter schools, by the nature of the process they undergo to secure approval, face a higher threshold of accountability than district schools.
The public review, authorization, financial requirements, followed by another review prior to renewal, are far beyond what district schools face. Further, charters since their inception have operated with the knowledge that they could be shut down if they did not meet the necessary requirements.
Only with the recent changes to federal education policy has closure been added as a potential outcome of poor performance for district schools. Charters have faced this potential outcome from the beginning. Nevertheless, there are plenty of laws and rules governing the operation of all public schools in Georgia, both district and chartered. The key to ensuring effective accountability in any school is the oversight exercised by the entity that authorizes the school’s existence.
In the case of a charter school, oversight is accomplished by the authorizer, which in Georgia could be the school district or the state board or both. Most charter schools are the beneficiaries of bilateral authorization, which may create confusion at the district level as to who actually exercises oversight of the school.
It is not a lack of rules that creates this confusion, but the implementation of the process at the local level.
Problematic charter schools are not the result of a lack of either rules or transparency. Rather, the problem is one of lack of effective oversight. Charter schools are not supposed to be awarded a charter and told to come back in three, five or 10 years and then let’s figure out how things went.
A charter school authorizer should be monitoring operations on a regular basis. Renewal should not be the time when problems are uncovered for the first time, and it certainly should not be awarded at all when serious problems become apparent.
This laxness doesn’t happen when the state Department of Education’s Charter School Division is in charge of the oversight of state-chartered schools — it has happened when oversight of district-authorized charter schools is left to the local district authorizer.
Authorizers such as the state board follow the best practices of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers. Apparently not all local districts that authorize charters do the same, hence the recent headlines.
Charter schools are shut down when they fail the accountability tests: student achievement, governance and financial sustainability.
A larger, more important question could be posed: What happens to school districts that fail the accountability tests?
Not one local Georgia district school has been closed due to systemic cheating; the inability to locate millions of dollars and contracts being let for construction connected to a former superintendent; or for board infighting, alleged superintendent misdeeds and loss of accreditation.
Monica Henson is executive director of Provost Academy Georgia (PAGA) and Magic Johnson Bridgescape Academies at PAGA.
Tax credit gives students choices
By Jim Kelly
Parents, concerned citizens and business leaders in Georgia are embracing educational freedom. They no longer have to rely on an inefficient, unresponsive and costly public school monopoly.
In 2008, the Legislature adopted a program that permits taxpayers to take a state income-tax credit for their contributions to qualified student scholarship organizations, or SSOs. The SSOs use these contributions to provide scholarships to children whose parents otherwise could not afford private schools.
In 2011, the third full year of the program, the $50 million annual cap on tuition tax credits was reached with thousands of taxpayers being denied the ability to participate. This year, the tax credits are being consumed three times faster than last year. Why are Georgia taxpayers racing to support this program?
First, they love being able to invest in children like Caleb Perry, who attends the Heritage School in Newnan. As Caleb explains, “I feel I will be equipped with the skills to be a productive and contributing member of my community.”
Second, they want to empower parents who can hold schools accountable by having more choices for the education of their children.
Third, they support the accredited independent schools that, according to Dave Davies, headmaster of Deerfield-Windsor School in Albany, “have been able to provide excellent educational opportunities to more Georgia families and broaden the socio-economic background of their student bodies.”
Fourth, taxpayers appreciate the transparency and accountability of SSOs that are required to register with the Georgia Department of Education, file audited financial statements with the Georgia Department of Revenue, comply with DOR regulations and obligate at least 90 percent of their contributions for scholarships. Any director or officer of an SSO who actively participates in an SSO’s intentional violation of the law is guilty of a misdemeanor.
Finally, budget-conscious taxpayers like the fact that the average value of scholarships awarded by most SSOs is less than the $4,699 average per-pupil amount spent by the state on public school students.
The Georgia k-12 tuition tax- credit program provides the ultimate in accountability and transparency. Public schools must now compete against private schools for students, disclosing sufficient information upon which parents can rely in choosing where best to educate their children. Likewise, public schools must compete for the support of Georgia taxpayers, who will insist on effective school governance, fiscal responsibility and ethical assessments of academic achievement.
There is no silver bullet in solving America’s education crisis. However, the tuition tax-credit program is hitting the mark. Legislators should use a scalpel to improve this program, resisting the offer of a hacksaw by long-time opponents of educational freedom.
Jim Kelly is president of Solidarity Center for Law and Justice, an Atlanta civil and human rights public interest law firm.