Some private schools refuse to follow lawmaker’s advice and cheat the state

The investigation in The New York Times about the abuses of the Georgia Private School Tax Credit program has riled up a lot of people. (See earlier blog on this.)

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.

Bill Clarkson

–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog

81 comments Add your comment

Entitlement Society

May 23rd, 2012
11:41 am

Thank you for publishing the side of the non-cheaters. There are ethical people out there.

Ron F.

May 23rd, 2012
11:54 am

Nice to see that a school as large as Westminster decided to make their position clear. I would hate to see their reputation tarnished by something so petty and manipulative.

Why not parental choice?

May 23rd, 2012
12:28 pm

One day the efforts of those striving to maintain the failed status quo in public education—and deny parents real choices—will be an embarrassment even to you at the liberal AJC.

If the AJC is still published.

Formerteacher

May 23rd, 2012
12:33 pm

The only way to fix this is for every voter to oust their state rep and senator if they supported this bill. Writing to the very people who enabled this travesty will do absolutely no good. I’ve written my rep and senator multiple times on different issues, to no avail.

Can we get a list of votes on this (although since I live in Cherokee, I’m 99.99% sure how my delegation voted)? What was the bill number and would the General Assembly website have the documents online from 4 years ago?

Maureen Downey

May 23rd, 2012
12:34 pm

@Why Not parental choice, You ought to ask that question of voters; the issue of vouchers has been placed before the electorate 22 times since 1966, and the voters have rejected it 21 times.
Maureen

Ed Johnson

May 23rd, 2012
12:51 pm

Is David Cases still in bed with ALEC?

cgregister

May 23rd, 2012
12:58 pm

Just goes to show how unethical ALL our lawmakers are. They need to be voted out. I am so tired of the rich getting richer, while the poor and the middle class suffer at their lack of concern. The lawmakers need to make and apply laws that just and ethical in ALL circumstances.

Jefferson

May 23rd, 2012
1:23 pm

If they are enrolled but not in attendance, should not a driver’s lic be revoked ?

William Casey

May 23rd, 2012
1:50 pm

I’m pleased that a REAL private school such as Westminster is willing to go on record repudiating this loathsome practice. I expect other reputable private schools to do the same. The “Indoctrination Centers” (I refuse to call them “schools”) that take advantage of this scam are the moral inheritors of the “seg academies” of the late ’60’s.

JF McNamara

May 23rd, 2012
1:54 pm

I wonder if we could have used that $143M for HOPE or to cover our education budget shortfalls?

My only question is “Where are the rural school systems, and why are they not complaining?” I’m sure that most people will think of this as a Metro Atlanta problem with the usual “issues” that go with that, but its not. If you’re in a rural district, they have stolen $143M from you. If you’re a laid off state employee, they stole your salary…yet its a tree falling in the woods…

Pi

May 23rd, 2012
2:00 pm

The rest of us paid higher state taxes to cover these credits, but when will the IRS get involved? If parents were claiming the money earmarked for their own kids was a charitable contribution on their 1040’s then fraud was committed and Casas encouraged the practice.

Jim G.

May 23rd, 2012
2:05 pm

They haven’t stolen a penny from anyone. I pay over 4k in property taxes to the public school system every year. I have also have paid for my three boys to attend private school for over eleven years – Never asking for or getting any benefit from the 40k I contributed to your kids education. I am not rich – I just choose to make some sacrifices to do what i feel is best for my kids. Remember there are only two types pf people – winners an whiners — Stop whining about the rich – it is a sickening example for your kids!!!

Midway

May 23rd, 2012
2:18 pm

“Remember there are only two types pf people – winners an whiners — Stop whining about the rich – it is a sickening example for your kids!!!”

Is that what they are teaching the children at the private Christian schools that are taking advantage of this ripoff?

Seems to me Jesus was one of those “whiners.”

sneak peak into education

May 23rd, 2012
2:19 pm

@ Jim G. No, you are wrong. The two types of people are honest or dishonest. The actions of those who are abusing this scholarship fall into the latter category.

JF McNamara

May 23rd, 2012
2:20 pm

@Jim G.,

Can you read? The people are getting a dollar for dollar credit for the money up to $2,500, so the discount offset most of the property taxes for my kids education.

Also, based on $4,000 in taxes, your home value about $525,000. That’s a pretty nice house for someone who is not rich…

Maureen Downey

May 23rd, 2012
2:22 pm

@Jim G, There are millions of Americans who pay taxes for schools they never use, including all those people with no kids. There are also millions who pay for fire services, child welfare and police they never use. There are millions who pay for senior centers and public ball fields and soccer fields and pools that they never use.
And they never ask anything from the collective millions they have contributed.
As a nation,we have agreed that there is a collective good that includes schools, child protective services, recreation, parks, libraries, highways, bridges, roads, military and natural resources. Not using one of those services doesn’t entitle any of us to cheat on our tax obligations.
Maureen

@Jim G

May 23rd, 2012
2:31 pm

Right there with you! Parents of public school students should thank us for freeing up seats in an already over-crowded system. We’re giving them tax dollars, unused seats, and teacher attention from which their children directly benefit. It’s just a parental sacrifice that we make for our children. Don’t you just love it when you’re suddenly “rich” just because you send your children to a private school? Let the sterotypes fly….

Brasstown

May 23rd, 2012
2:36 pm

Great coverage. Sometimes it seems like a story can take some time for it to take hold with the public.

The corruption that comes with complete domination by one party was predicted by many here.

Terry Krugman

May 23rd, 2012
2:47 pm

I was pleased to see the thoughtful response from Westminster High School. This should not be surprising, since Westminster was one of the few private schools which did not lower its standards to accommodate white flight from the Atlanta Public Schools in the early and mid 1970’s ( I was in the APS then, and saw it happen. Many mediocre students transferred out once integration began).
And thank you Maureen for your spot on response to JimG. We are all in this together- and all of us should support public schools,( roads, parks, hospitals) even those who send their children to private institutions. Ron Paul may be honest, colorful and entertaining, but he is not always right.

catlady

May 23rd, 2012
2:48 pm

Ms. Downey, what is “political nitrogen?” I cannot place the analogy.

Jim G,

May 23rd, 2012
2:50 pm

Maureen – I agree with your thoughts completely – but I do have children (three of them) that would be attending and costing the schools absent my choice. So nice example – but not relevant! And for the record I have never used this program either – but now I sure want to. Nobody has cheated on their taxes because of this program, and even if they did that is not why people are attacking the program. Look at the comments. How quickly did the discourse turn to “rich people”, how quickly did people evaluate my financial standing? Shame on me for working hard and investing for the last 20yrs – it probably is my fault?? The money is there for anyone to pursue – it has nothing to do with us rich people – LOL

@JF – I can read quite well. I can actually read and understand the tax code. As such I understand the difference between local property taxes (which fund the schools) and state taxes (which fund this program). I also understand that they are not related and do not offset each. I also understand that the State Funds allocated to this program took no funds away from any school funding. Reading something besides AJC articles before you speak is helpful, you should try it out!

Let the whining continue!!

puzzling choice

May 23rd, 2012
2:53 pm

I was going to ask the same thing as the phrase political nitrogen seems odd. Nitrogen compounds are explosive but nitrogen by itself is inert.

Atlanta Mom

May 23rd, 2012
2:55 pm

I would inquire of Westminister–how much scholarship money was allocated pre-tax credit program, and how much has been allocated post-tax credit program. Is the increase equal to the credit funds it has received?

Hillbilly D

May 23rd, 2012
2:56 pm

Ms. Downey, what is “political nitrogen?” I cannot place the analogy.

I thought it was just me; I didn’t get it either.

Just A Teacher

May 23rd, 2012
2:58 pm

There has always been one huge issue with private schools in Georgia, and it’s one nobody will discuss. So let me just mention the elephant in the room. Many private schools were opened in this state when the federal government forced integration on public school systems. Although this might not be true of all private academies, it is true of some. This legislation actually gives people tax credit for taking children out of integrated schools and placing them in segregated schools. On the surface this might seem like a good law, but I believe that it is just another attempt to move on back to the good old days of separate, but equal. Cassas is certainly slick in his presentation though (much like a serpent I read about once).

Why not more choice?

May 23rd, 2012
3:12 pm

Maureen, you carry a torch for the teachers’ unions—and for the belief that, if not for public schools and their politically correct curriculum, all Georgia’s kids would somehow grow up “racist” or even God-fearing Christians.

But would giving parents more choices in education really herald the end of the world?

You and other liberal parents will still opt for public schools over those more willing to listen to the needs of parents concerned about learning. Readers of this blog can therefore only puzzle at why the concept of greater parental choice is so unnerving to you.

Hopefully there is a reason which transcends Democrat partisan politics.

Parents: Rent the film “Waiting for Superman.” Teachers: Do a Google search right now on “NEA” and “donations” to see what far-left causes your GAE/NEA dues are bankrolling.

(Sorry, Maureen—but like you, I have an obvious partisan preference.)

JF McNamara

May 23rd, 2012
3:13 pm

@JimG,

In your attempt to be smug, you showed your own ignorance. You don’t actually understand how it works.

51.26% of Georgia’s education funding comes from the state level and around 40% comes from local. The rest is federal money. If you take money away from state funds, it still takes away from my kid’s education. We have $124M less to spend on everything including the educational component provided by the state.

Perhaps you should try educating yourself on how our government actually works before spouting off.

AlreadySheared

May 23rd, 2012
3:33 pm

@JimG,
Hang in there bro – it’s gettin real wacky now. As they say, a hit dog will holler.

Today in wacky
1) Taking advantage of a feature in the tax code that some people don’t like is now also known as “cheating on your taxes”

2) Our inflamed moderator confusing “nitrogen” with (I assume) “nitroglycerin” (sp?).

3) Some seg academy race baitin’

4) Struggles with math. EVEN if you were able to catch a 2,500 tuition break, JF up above somehow thinks thats more than the 7,000 – 9,000 per year of public school resources your privately schooled children did not consume.

And finially, unanswered from a previous post
5) Unspoken in all this is the fact that public education institutions accept funds for private school students who are not served by said institutions. The public education bureaucrats are bleating about even a small portion of education funding ($50 million for the entire state) slipping through their fingers. What should really happen is that private school parents should be up in arms to reclaim the tens/hundreds of millions of dollars raised for the education of their children, but captured by the public education bureaucracy.

Maureen Downey

May 23rd, 2012
3:34 pm

@Hill: I mean explosively unstable. As in: “Nitrogen is notable for the range of explosively unstable compounds that it can produce.”
It was an oft-used phrase from a politician I covered in Florida, who would tell me, “Not touching that one, Miss Downey. It’s pure political nitrogen.”
But I changed it since it seemed to throw people. Trying to say that messing with this law could set off a lot of different charged reactions from lots of groups.
Maureen

Prof

May 23rd, 2012
3:37 pm

@ Catlady and Hillbilly D. Isn’t “political nitrogen” shorthand for political nitroglycerine?

Jim G,

May 23rd, 2012
3:38 pm

JF you wizardry with numbers is impressive if still misguided. I am not attempting to be smug – you just asked a silly question. I understand completely how the government works. There is no offset between my property taxes and state funds – period. The estimated annual cost / student in GA is $ 9,000 – so if you remove one student for $2,500 seems like a pretty good deal. Not sure how that is stealing from you? There are no tricks in the legislation – go read it. It was also reviewed by the DOE and approved by the legislatature. If you don’t like it quit complaining to me, go downtown and complain to the folks at the capital. You better get back to work – I think the Waffles are up;-)

@justateacher – Surprised it took this long, but thanks for also making sure that this is also a racial issue? Now I am white and rich – I am really a bad person…

Hillbilly D

May 23rd, 2012
3:43 pm

Maureen

Pure nitrogen isn’t flammable. You’re probably thinking of ammonia nitrate.

http://www.uigi.com/nitrogen.html

Hillbilly D

May 23rd, 2012
3:44 pm

Maureen

Just read you’re expanded explanation. I’ve never heard it before, never spent much time in Florida. That’s why I was confused by it.

AlreadySheared

May 23rd, 2012
3:47 pm

@Maureen,
From our friends at wikipedia:

Nitrogen is a chemical element that has the symbol N, atomic number of 7 and atomic mass 14.00674 u. Elemental nitrogen is a colorless, odorless, tasteless, and mostly inert diatomic gas at standard conditions, constituting 78.09% by volume of Earth’s atmosphere.[1]

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nitrogen

Three two steps for you
1) Admit

2) Retract

3) Refrain from quitting your day job to go into chemistry.

mark

May 23rd, 2012
3:55 pm

The atmospheric gases at ground level are 78% N2. But if you pump it up to 90% you will become drunk, pass out and drift off to death. It has been discussed lately as a non-pain inducing method of execution.

I do think it works as an analogy for how Georgia Republicants have run this state into the ground. A slow, drunken stupor, then death to public education. By the way. Stop talking about unions. There are not any in our schools!!!! Teacher groups/associations can not strike, collective bargin, only lobby in this right to work state!! they lobby just like Charter USA, Pearson Publishing, churches and big tobacco.

mark

May 23rd, 2012
3:56 pm

I forgot!!! vote out chip rodgers in 2012!! He is like beer. The cause to most of life’s problems.

Jordan Kohanim

May 23rd, 2012
3:58 pm

Wow. Acidity on this blog is sky-high. Yikes.

yes i am worried

May 23rd, 2012
3:58 pm

Why not choice — because the suburban republicans actively advocate against vouchers — they don’t want “those children” coming to their schools. Google it.

Digger

May 23rd, 2012
4:02 pm

It’s ALL political nitrous oxide. Laughing gas.

dc

May 23rd, 2012
4:03 pm

Will be great when parents who actually care about their kids and the education they aren’t getting can pull those kids out of those schools that are failing (for whatever reason) and take the money allocated for that student to a place that educates children successfully.

And teachers….take a chill pill… schools fail for a lot of reasons. If I had a kid in one of those schools, I couldn’t care less why….I would just want them out. Not blaming teachers…

Amazes me how those who supposedly care about the poor and downtrodden aren’t 100% behind this..sadly, it appears many of them (especially those who don’t have kids in said schools) care much more about 1) Public schools (never have understood why that matters, as long as kids are getting a good education), and 2) Not leaving the kids who don’t give a crap behind ..as if forcing kids and parents who do care, to stay behind w/ those who don’t..is somehow a good idea.

Just A Teacher

May 23rd, 2012
4:04 pm

@Jim G . . . “Surprised it took this long, but thanks for also making sure that this is also a racial issue? Now I am white and rich – I am really a bad person…”

If you say so, sir, I’ll have to take your word for it. As far as my comment goes, it stems from personal experience. I taught in a small town in south Georgia where that was the purpose of the private academy, and everyone knew it. BTW, I’m white and lower middle class. Please don’t say that only makes me a half bad person.

Jim G,

May 23rd, 2012
4:15 pm

@justateacher – I don’t doubt your experience, but your comments generalized this across all private schools. In that respect I disagree totally. I am happy to report our private school is balanced across all minorities – as it should be. There are definitely still race issues, but this is not one of them! This is about parents rich or poor trying to what they think is best for their children. The state by law has given them and others the right to direct some of their state income tax to support private education expenses. It is not really underhanded, hidden, illegal or complicated at all – some folks just don’t like it? My advice to them would be to stop “whining” on this forum, read and understand the actual legislation then go have a educated discussion with their representative. Sadly I doubt that they will do that because whining is much easier.

Get your facts straight

May 23rd, 2012
4:18 pm

JF McNamara,

The math your providing and are so smug about ignores one main issue. The State is paying for that child whether they are in Public school or (in the case of this program) private school.
A typical student in GA public school costs the State (on average) $5,000 per year. Although the maximum scholarship award is less than $10k, the average SSO scholarship award is around $4k. The State is actually spending less $ on educating that child than if they attended the Public School so the actually saving money. It’s really just a matter of where and how the $ is being spent. Why shouldn’t a parent have the right to choose what educationthat best fits the needs of their child? If Georgia schools were among the highest ranked schools in the country, perhaps this program would have little to no validity. Unfortunately, Georgia public schools are among the worst in the country. Without programs like these, those families who live in undesirable zip codes and/or whose parents have limited bank accounts have no choice. They are simply stuck waiting for a failed system to correct itself which may never happen and certainly won’t happen in time to impact their education in a positive way. Perhaps everyone should stop focusing on .05% of the entire Public School system budget as the cause for all our problems and start focusing on why our schools are so bad across the board. The definition of insanity is to continue to do the same thing over and over again and to expect different results. To think that continuing to manage our children’s educational opportunities the same way we always have is insane as they are getting any better and certainly won’t from continuing to rally around a broken system. It’s wreckless, thoughtless, and immature. Let’s instead focus on ways to make the system better and more efficient and cease this endless bickering of what an inconsequential amount of money may or may not do to better our schools. The first step is to admit that Georgia Public schools are beyond repair and need a complete overhaul to bring them from the bottom of the pile educationally. Georgia’s failure to provide a Public School system that is competitive and attractive will ultimately be the demise of our State. Why is it that we feel the need to apply efficiencies and sound business concepts to our businesses to grow healthy and successful, but insist that the Public School System is immune to being held to a higher standard. Don;t our children deserve more? Where is thepublic outcry for the credits being used for land conversation easments? Where is the outcry for the credits we receive for buying an energy efficient HVAC system? How about the credits being used to attract movie studios to our state? These credits impact the budget no differently than the Edcuation Tax credit. The only difference is that the Education tax credit is literally funding the cost of educating a child at a school that best fits their needs instead of just simply reducing their carbon footprint. The lack of foresight and ability to see the big picture in the endless negative commentary is disappointing. Kill the program you say … what about the children who are in a terrible school environment who were given the opportunity to attend a school that gives them their best chance of success? What about the Mom and Dad who have a special needs child who is not getting an education in the public school system that gives them any chance of success? These are the types of people that you will destroy if you continue to wear blinders and refuse to see the failure that is our Public School system and how a system, while not perfect, is doing wonderful things for thousands of children across the State of Georgia.

red herring

May 23rd, 2012
4:24 pm

Louisiana is in the process of allowing the tax dollars to follow the pupil to whichever school their parents want to send them to. This makes sense and will reduce the cost of a quality education in Louisiana. Georgia and other states will be quick to follow when they see the success. The public schools in Georgia are black holes for taxpayer dollars while the results are just not there. Particularly school administration is bloated and thanks to the AJC for documenting this so well. Also thanks to the AJC for staying with the cheating scandals. It would be wonderful if the same
consultants Dekalb County hired to make recommendations concerning cutting their budgets would make the rounds of all the county schools having budgetary problems. Georgia public schools also have a problem with nepotism which needs to be addressed.

Jefferson

May 23rd, 2012
4:24 pm

Some judge should stop this.

NONPC

May 23rd, 2012
4:32 pm

It’s really just a matter of where and how the $ is being spent. Why shouldn’t a parent have the right to choose what educationthat best fits the needs of their child?

LOL. How naiive. There are entire subgroups dedicated to the destruction of all non-public education:
* Teachers unions (who see them as competition)
* folks too poor to send their kids to alternate schools (and are envious)
* folks who don’t want to send their kids to alternates (but rather want all those other kids to come back to their schools),
* school boards that want to control ALL purse strings in their school districts, etc, etc. etc.

There are lots of reasons to hate this tax break. Very few of them are good and wholesome and in the best interest of the kids.

Need info

May 23rd, 2012
4:39 pm

Could my son contribute $2500 to this fund and then specify that I recieive the money for college tuition? He needs a tax break and I need financial assistance.

NONPC

May 23rd, 2012
4:42 pm

Kill the program you say … what about the children who are in a terrible school environment who were given the opportunity to attend a school that gives them their best chance of success?

The teachers unions, the school board, the envy-ridden parents couldn’t care less if the school environment is terrible. If it weren’t so, public schools would be a lot better. They want everyone trapped and beholden to them. Those kids pay salaries and pensions. Those kids (with parent that care) are the only hope for the kids that are truly lost. It matters not if the kids get a lousy education compared to a private school. What matters is that those kids represent money, power, enthusiasm and a study ethic that is lacking in the public schools. The public schools need them so as not to be completely hopeless. They must NOT be allowed to escape the system.

YALLOweMe

May 23rd, 2012
4:44 pm

@”It is now the state’s largest single-largest tax credit program, according to Steve Suitts of the Southern Education Fund, which has been trying to rally concerns about the blatant abuses”

MD, shame on you for citing a race-baiting organization like Southern Education Fund. As a private school parent, I strongly dislike GA GOAL (and parents from our school will know which private school it is by the way we call this tax rebate program) because our school actually adheres to the law and brings in some students from failing public schools. The problem is parents of these new students don’t share our value. We pay for our education and we want families who share our value (whatever it is) to influence our kids. I want our state to repeal this tax provision. Parents should pay for their own children’s education.

FJ

May 23rd, 2012
5:04 pm

I’m just throwing this out there in case everyone is sitting back thinking Westminster is giving scholarships to the poor and needy. A good friend of mine will be sending her child there (to kindergarten) and he is getting a full free ride. She and her husband are both teachers and the child could have gone to school in the coveted Walton district, even though they don’t live there, but they chose to apply for financial aid and got it. They have a nice house, nice cars, and go on vacations a couple of times a year. I see no financial hardship. Maybe they don’t have as much money as other Westminster families, but they are far from poor.