The AJC has also written about this law, noting that the Georgia Legislature has enshrouded this questionable program in so much secrecy that it is near impossible for taxpayers to see where the money is going.
An investigative piece last year by AJC reporters James Salzer and Nancy Badertscher raised 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.)
Last year, 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 have strict public accountability rules including Florida.
Because of the lax language and virtual absence of oversight, a tax credit created allegedly to enable poor children to flee failing schools for private schools has become a major tax diversion for middle class families whose kids are already in private schools, diverting $143 million from the state treasury into private school scholarships since mid-2008.
It is now the state’s largest single-largest tax credit program, according to Steve Suitts of the Southern Education Foundation, which has been trying to rally concerns about the blatant abuses, abuses built into the law by its sponsors in the Legislature, including state Rep. David Casas, R-Lilburn.
I have contacted Casas for comment, but no response yet. (He may be in hiding after the Times story.)
The question for me — and one that Suitts and I discussed at length – is why no one cares. As he notes, these illegal actions are “hiding in plain view.” The AJC has reported on the abuses. And now so has The New York Times.
But even more damaging is this video by Casas, which is a primer on how to get around the stipulation that the child has to go from a public school to a private school. Casas makes clear that it is perfectly acceptable — in fact he urges parents to do so — to enroll your child in a public school while they are in a private school.
That, Casas maintains, meets the threshold for public school attendance, and he says Gov. Deal is fine with that skirting of the law, as is the entire Legislature. He contends they are all well aware that “enrolled” as written in the law doesn’t mean attend, despite the purported goal of the law to help poor kids from failing public schools, not middle class kids already in private schools.
(I have sent Deal spokesman Brian Robinson a note to whether Deal is aware of what Casas is telling parents on the video and whether the governor agrees. Will print response if I get one, but this topic is a political quagmire, so Deal may sidestep it.)
Casas also suggests on the video that the law allows parents to not only designate their tax credit for a specific school but for their own child — which is not correct and illegal, according to Suitts.
Some schools are not willing to follow Rep. Casas’ dangerous advice and cheat the state.
Here is an example from what is arguably one of the most prestigious private schools in the South:
Dear Westminster Community,
An article in today’s New York Times raises serious concerns about how some private schools in Georgia are manipulating the Georgia Private School Tax Credit program. It is a distressing read, as once again, dollars meant to offer children a brighter educational future are redirected in unprincipled ways. As you know, the Georgia legislature implemented the Georgia Private School Tax Credit program four years ago to raise scholarship money that public school students could then use to choose educational options they otherwise could not afford.
Let me assure you that the behaviors highlighted in this article in no way describe Westminster’s financial aid process or practice. Families applying for aid at Westminster are rigorously scrutinized. The Georgia Private School Tax Credit dollars are utilized as the law requires, not as a backdoor method to fund tuition for potential athletic recruits, or pay tuition of students who are already enrolled. Every financial aid dollar is distributed to families with clear and demonstrated need as disclosed through a very specific financial formula. This includes tax credit funds. I am grateful to our team in Admissions and Financial Aid who operate with the highest degree of ethics and respect for what the law dictates.
If you have further questions about financial aid or the specifics of the Georgia Private School Tax Credit program, please do not hesitate to contact me.
As always, thank you for your partnership and support of The Westminster Schools.
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog