A poster asked the other day when we were going to discuss the story on the lack of oversight of the state’s new private school scholarship program, which will cost taxpayers $50 million next year. I had not posted as the story went to print subscribers first and was not online until today.
The investigative piece by AJC reporters James Salzer and Nancy Badertscher raises good questions about the weak public accountability imposed on the program, which was created by the Legislature in 2008. (The bill was part of the general heave-ho given to public education that year, but I will save that lament for another day.)
The Legislature made changes this year to the law that make it a crime for state officials to release key information about the program. In contrast, other states with similar laws including Florida have strict public accountability rules.
Here is part of the story. Take a look at it, if you have time.
The law set up “student scholarship organizations,” known as SSOs, that accept donations from people and corporations and funnel them to private schools. In a monthlong review, the AJC found that:
● The law signed by Gov. Nathan Deal earlier this month may be flawed. It says at one point that the state will post information about each scholarship organization on its website; later the same law says all information relating to SSOs is confidential.
● Three officers of one SSO were paid $109,000 each in 2009, or 9.5 percent of their revenue, according to a federal tax filing. Only a handful of other SSOs filed federal tax reports for 2009, but none reported making six-figure payouts to three officers.
● Proponents’ claims that the program saves the state millions of dollars are impossible to prove or disprove for all of the scholarship organizations.
● Each SSO must provide the state with an independent audit each year. Officials say that not all the organizations have done so, but they refused to say how many or which ones.
● The purpose of the program is to give public school kids a chance to attend private schools by granting them scholarships. But some SSOs encourage families to game the system: Although their children are already in private schools, they enroll them in public schools for the sole purpose of making them eligible for the scholarships. The children never actually attend the public school. The AJC found 81 such cases in one county alone.
Under the law, a person or a company may donate to an SSO, each of which has participating private schools. The donor may designate a particular school as the beneficiary. The SSO then sends money to the school, and the school uses it to award scholarships.
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.
One large scholarship organization, Georgia GOAL, posts a transparency report on its website, but most offer the public few if any details about how they spend the millions of dollars in tax credit donations they receive.
Only a few of the more than 30 scholarship organizations listed on the state’s approved list last month responded to an AJC request for basic information.
A few said they hadn’t given out any scholarships yet. Phone calls brought varying amounts of information from a few more, such as GRACE Scholars Inc., run by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta, the Georgia Student Scholarship Organization in Cumming and Georgia Christian Schools Scholarship Fund.
Steve Suitts, vice president of the Southern Education Foundation, said the SSOs don’t want to release detailed information because they probably can’t withstand an “evidence-based assessment.”
“It doesn’t take much to see this as a campaign of no information and disinformation,” said Suitts, whose organization will release a report next month branding the scholarship program a failure. “What if we had [public] school districts operating this way?”
State Rep. Earl Ehrhart, R-Powder Springs, the sponsor of this year’s tax credit law and the unpaid CEO of the Georgia Christian Schools fund, called some of the program’s critics “crazy extremists” and said they should prove their case with facts or “shut up.” But even Ehrhart said SSOs should release more information than they do.
All the organizations should publish reports on how they spend the money, said Ben Scafidi, an associate professor of economics at Georgia College & State University and a policy adviser for Georgia GOAL Scholarship Program, one of the largest scholarship groups.
“People who donate their money to an SSO want to know if it is going to a kid who truly needs a scholarship and they also want to know it’s not going to excessive overhead,” Scafidi said. “They want to be accountable to donors, to scholarship recipients, private schools, and they want to be accountable to taxpayers.”
The new law says the SSOs must send the Revenue Department a report listing the total contributions by individuals and corporations, the number and dollar value of scholarships awarded, a list of donors, and the audit. It says the department should post the information on its website.
However, the next section of the new law says “all information or reports provided by student scholarship organizations to the Department of Revenue shall be confidential taxpayer information” and that it’s against the law to release it.
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog