Many people contend that the private school scholarships approved by the Georgia General Assembly were a back-door voucher and subsidy, that the money would not go to poor students in public schools to move to private schools as promised, but to students already in the private schools.
Reports that parents were making donations to schools that were then repackaged as “scholarships” for their own kids have been made to the Georgia General Assembly, which has ignored multiple reports of abuse and, in fact, enabled even greater abuse of the program.
In the last few years, the General Assembly has adopted a strong anti-public school posture, which remains puzzling given that nine out of 10 Georgia children attend public schools. But these legislators keep getting re-elected, so voters either don’t care or, more likely, don’t know what their lawmakers are doing.
A lengthy new New York Times investigation into these private school scholarships found that it’s no secret that the scholarships are not serving poor children but, instead, as one expert said, are serving as “neovouchers.”
The program would be supported by donations to nonprofit scholarship groups, and Georgians who contributed would receive dollar-for-dollar tax credits, up to $2,500 a couple. The intent was that money otherwise due to the Georgia treasury — about $50 million a year — would be used instead to help needy students escape struggling public schools.
That was the idea, at least. But parents meeting at Gwinnett Christian Academy got a completely different story last year.
“A very small percentage of that money will be set aside for a needs-based scholarship fund,” Wyatt Bozeman, an administrator at the school near Atlanta, said during an informational session. “The rest of the money will be channeled to the family that raised it.”
A handout circulated at the meeting instructed families to donate, qualify for a tax credit and then apply for a scholarship for their own children, many of whom were already attending the school.
“If a student has friends, relatives or even corporations that pay Georgia income tax, all of those people can make a donation to that child’s school,” added an official with a scholarship group working with the school.
The exchange at Gwinnett Christian Academy, a recording of which was obtained by The New York Times, is just one example of how scholarship programs have been twisted to benefit private schools at the expense of the neediest children.
Spreading at a time of deep cutbacks in public schools, the programs are operating in eight states and represent one of the fastest-growing components of the school choice movement. This school year alone, the programs redirected nearly $350 million that would have gone into public budgets to pay for private school scholarships for 129,000 students, according to the Alliance for School Choice, an advocacy organization. Legislators in at least nine other states are considering the programs.
Most of the private schools are religious. Nearly a quarter of the participating schools in Georgia require families to make a profession of religious faith, according to their Web sites. Many of those schools adhere to a fundamentalist brand of Christianity. A commonly used sixth-grade science text retells the creation story contained in Genesis, omitting any other explanation. An economics book used in some high schools holds that the Antichrist — a world ruler predicted in the New Testament — will one day control what is bought and sold.
The programs are insulated from provisions requiring church-state separation because the donations are collected and distributed by the nonprofit scholarship groups. A cottage industry of these groups has sprung up, in some cases collecting hundreds of thousands of dollars in administrative fees, according to tax filings. The groups often work in concert with private schools like Gwinnett Christian Academy to solicit donations and determine who will get the scholarships — in effect limiting school choice for the students themselves. In most states, students who withdraw from the schools cannot take the scholarship money with them.
Public school officials view the tax credits as poorly disguised state subsidies, part of an expanding agenda to shift tax dollars away from traditional public schools. “Our position is that this is a shell game,” said Chris Thomas, general counsel for the Arizona School Boards Association.
After Georgia’s scholarship program was adopted, parents of children in private schools began flooding public school offices to officially “enroll” their children. Their plan was to fill out the paperwork even though they had no intention of ever sending their children to public schools. According to the way the law was interpreted, the enrollments would make them eligible for scholarships. Some public schools balked.
“I recently contacted you about having some trouble enrolling/registering my child in a public school while he is going to a private school,” one parent wrote to a scholarship organization last year in an e-mail obtained by The Times. “A principal told us he cannot attend two schools at the same time, which is simply not true because public and private schools have nothing to do with each other. But we need to have my child enrolled in a public school in order to qualify for the student scholarship program.”
The idea, based on a technical interpretation of the word “enroll,” was promoted by State Representative David Casas, a Republican and co-sponsor of the scholarship legislation in Georgia. In meetings with parents, he had explained that the bill’s wording was intentional — using the word “enrolled” rather than “attending” — to enable the scholarships’ use by students already in private schools.
Parents questioned the idea. “Aren’t people going to say that’s a scam?” asked one father during a presentation by Mr. Casas that was posted on YouTube. “ ‘You’ve been going here for nine years. Now you’re enrolling in public school? You’re enrolled in two schools?’ ”
Mr. Casas, the president of a seminary, assured him it was not a scam. “Feel fine about it,” Mr. Casas said.
The fact that children already attending private schools can receive scholarships from some organizations means that Georgia’s private schools have a ready source of donations — parents and families of existing students. While the law was advertised as a way to help needy students, it contained no income limits for eligible recipients. And although it prohibits donations designated for a specific student, some students are benefiting from the donations of relatives and friends.
Hanaiya Hassan, whose daughter attends Hamzah Academy in Alpharetta, Ga., said she had saved $5,000 by asking four friends to donate to a scholarship organization with money earmarked for her daughter’s school. “If you collect four people for $2,500, then one of your children is free,” she said. The friends were awarded a tax credit. Depending on their tax bracket, some donors could actually come out ahead by filing for a federal charitable deduction as well as the state credit.
The Christian Heritage School in Dalton, Ga., circulated a flier for the 2011-12 school year titled “TUITION BREAKS FOR CURRENT FAMILIES!” It stated, “The scholarship tax credit is so vital to CHS that the school is encouraging all parents to participate in the program and enlist at least two others to do the same.” Participating families would get a 10 percent tuition rebate and a $250 bonus. The rebates would be doubled or tripled depending on overall participation.
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog