Private school tax credit: Cheating Georgia and its children

A pro/con on the private school tax credit ran in the print AJC today. The opposing piece was written by Hank Klibanoff , James M. Cox Jr. professor of journalism at Emory University and co-author of  “The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation,” which won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize in history, and  Steve Suitts, vice-president of the Southern Education Foundation.

Here is their piece on  why the tax credit hurts Georgia schools. (Here is a link to the piece by Eric Wearne of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation in support of the program.)

By Hank Klibanoff and Steve Suitts:

In the past few weeks, we’ve heard the excruciating sound of public school systems statewide squeezing the guts out of their budgets to meet state cuts and stay functional. Nine out of ten Georgia students attend public school, so the anguish and impact will be deep and wide.

In the past few weeks, we have also heard where millions of dollars from the state have gone: since mid-2008, $143 million in state taxes that were headed into the state treasury have been diverted into a large but little-known and easily abused program that provides scholarships for Georgia students to attend private schools.

In 2008, after tuition voucher proposals had failed again, the legislature passed and Gov. Sonny Perdue signed a back-door method guided by a legislator who later bragged that he misled his colleagues. The law allows Georgia individuals and corporations to divert some of their state taxes away from the state treasury and into nonprofit student scholarship organizations. These SSOs use the tax money to pay scholarships for students to attend private schools.

The Georgia tax credit scholarship program is more than a massive transfer of funds from public to private education – which, at an automatic $50 million per year increase, will reach $200 million next year, then $250 million, etc. It also reveals our state leaders’ spending priorities: In a mere four years, the tax credit program for private school scholarships has become the state’s largest — larger than tax credits for creating jobs, luring income-generating filmmaking, or promoting clean energy.

Is this the ride we signed up for? Did we really vote for the legislature and governor to begin squeezing to death our public schools and financing an unaccountable private school system?

When the SSO bill was debated, its primary sponsors, state Rep. David Casas and state Rep. Earl Ehrhart, were adamant that its purpose was to help low income students in struggling public schools transfer into better private schools.

We now know what happened: A Southern Education Foundation report in 2011 that failed to get much attention from local media caught the eye of an investigative reporter at The New York Times. The Times reported on May 21 that Casas had boasted at a meeting of parents that he had deliberately corrupted the law’s wording to allow parents of students already in private schools to “enroll” their children in a public school only long enough to claim a scholarship and then never attend a public school, much less a failing one.

In his talk, Casas revealed that his deeper goal is to “open it up to every student…That’s where we’re going with this.” The video was pulled from YouTube after media exposure.

Given Casas’ swagger about the ruse, it was no surprise that some SSOs and schools have openly advertised that contributing parents and friends of parents may recommend or designate their own schools and the student of their choice to receive a scholarship. Some encouraged parents to designate their own children. All of this is flagrantly against state law and regulations. It is simply private school cheating.

Casas and Ehrhart have responded to past criticism in two ways: Ehrhart typically just brands any critic “an extremist” or “a radical.” Then, under the guise of improving the SSO program’s transparency, they led lawmakers in 2011 to enact legislation that, again, did the opposite of what they claimed: They created a near-total lockdown of public information on the SSO program– unlike anything else in Georgia state law.

The legislature passed and Gov. Deal signed a law that classifies as a state secret almost any information one might seek – even something as simple as the number of scholarships a private school receives – and made it a crime to release it. Even the routine annual audit, required of all state agencies and programs, is off-limits to the public. Wonder what they’re hiding?

Some private schools have now distanced themselves from the shady practices and urged legislative reform. Lawmakers should end or vastly mend this program. But the lesson here for school kids? When the legislature embarks on “reform,” watch what they do, not what they say.

–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog

31 comments Add your comment

[...] And here is the opposing piece on the tax credit by Hank Klibanoff, co-author of  “The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation,” and  Steve Suitts, vice-president of the Southern Education Foundation. By Eric Wearne [...]

catlady

June 11th, 2012
10:25 am

This is saying what I said in 2008.

Beth88

June 11th, 2012
10:26 am

Parents deciding how their own tax dollars are best spent educating their own kids—cannot possibly be “cheating” anyone.

Give it up, Maureen. Parents and taxpayers have waited patiently for DECADES as the public school education monopoly systematically cheated generation after generation of kids out of a decent chance in life.

Free choice is an option your side will now, finally, have to learn to live with.

Inman Park Boy

June 11th, 2012
10:34 am

Vouchers for all of us would cure this in a heartbeat. Public schools would get better and private schools would not be elitist. Win-Win, and kids get educated.

Shar

June 11th, 2012
10:46 am

Beth88: It’s not the parents’ money. It’s public tax money that this bill surrepticiously allows them to divert to their own use.

I can’t take my tax dollars and go to Italy or buy a fur. When my husband and I decided to send two of our children to private school, we did so with our own, after-tax money.

I agree that the public school system has brought some of this on themselves by frustrating parents and taxpayers through poor performance, fiscal self-dealing and whining about ‘unfairness’ when their monopoly is threatened. But tax fraud is not the way to fix this.

Ann

June 11th, 2012
11:34 am

1,667,685 public school students in Georgia.

There are 118,637 private school students in Georgia.

14%

David

June 11th, 2012
11:36 am

The arguement that parents, as taxpayers, have some implicit right to decide how tax money dedicated to education is spent ignores the reality that the majority of that tax money does not come from the parents of school-aged children. Most of that tax money comes from community members and businesses with a much larger interest in the success of local public schools than the individual interests of parents who seek to send their children to elite private schools. I pay transportation and gas taxes but that doesn’t mean I can insist that GDOT come pave my driveway.

Ann

June 11th, 2012
11:36 am

I am seeing a violation of church and state in these tax credits for religious private schools. Is anyone else bothered by that?

Prof

June 11th, 2012
11:56 am

It is noteworthy that the newly revamped website for the “private school” Fulton Science Academy has a prominent link to those who wish to use these tax credits to benefit FSA. Under “Scholarship,” there are links to “Georgia GOAL information,” “Contribute Early to Georgia GOAL,” “Top 5 Reasons to Contribute to Georgia GOAL,” and “Goal Tax Credit Form.”

It looks like our tax monies will still be flowing to this Gulen Movement-connected School.

Good Mother

June 11th, 2012
12:14 pm

This isn’t tax fraud — what IS tax fraud?
Tax fraud is the county demanding I pay exorbitant property taxes for public schools and then the school system cheating and lying and changing student test scores to line their own pockets with bonuses and to falsely give them awareds. THAT is fraud and cheating.
As another poster said, vouchers for all — it will improve public schools and will make private ones less elitist.
I am now sending my kids to private school on my own after tax dollars YET I still have to pay for the local school exorbitant property taxes that my children won’t use. This isn’t fair or right. If I don’t send my kids to public schools, I shouldn’t have to pay the tax.
I wouldn’t mind at all if the school system, APS, was fair, honest and calpable but the illiterate and dishonest people at all levels of APS make me want to pull the plug on the whole APS system, drain it dry and then build it up from nothing with honest, dedicated, people. As it is now, it’s an expensive, dishonest, crooked, jobs program for the n’er do well.

To David from Good Mother

June 11th, 2012
12:19 pm

You make the point that the tax money for schools cannot be decided on by parents. David, there is no taxation without representation. To say that parents who pay taxes don’t have a say in how those tax dollars are spent is to deny we live in a democracy.
We DO have a say in how our taxes and the DOT spend their money. We have protested and won the right to deny highways be built — check out your history. Intown neighborhoods fought and won when a planned highway was supposed to be built.
We also protest and get sidewalks and roads repaired in our neighborhoods. Remember the “pothole possess” under Franklin? That was directly a result of voter concern.
Your assertion that tax-paying parents have no rights and no “say-so” is just plain silly.

Math problem

June 11th, 2012
12:22 pm

@Ann; Not sure of your math. Using your numbers for overall school enrollment: You are reporting that there is a total of 1,786,322 school-age children in Georgia. You further report that of that overall number, 118,637 of them go to private school, That means 6.5 percent of the schoolage kids in Georgia attend private school, not 14 percent.

Prof

June 11th, 2012
12:29 pm

I should have added that although the legislative sponsors originally stated that the aim of GOAL was to be able to offer scholarships to low income students so they could escape their struggling public schools for superior private schools, FSA nowhere mentions that their scholarships might allow low income students to attend FSA.

Instead, it states: “GOAL uses these contributions to provide private school scholarships to students who are eligible to enroll in pre-k4, kindergarten, or first grade or who are transferring from a Georgia public school.” Under “5 Top Reasons to Contribute to Georgia GOAL,” it gives these reasons: “Giving parents a choice to improve K-12 education for their children [that] will improve our communities and our state”; and, “The private school you designate benefits through increased enrollment, increased tuition income and more funds available to improve educational another offerings.”

Georgia GOAL designations will benefit FSA, in other words, not scholarships for low income students. That adjective “low income” doesn’t appear anywhere on their site.

Prof

June 11th, 2012
12:58 pm

@ Good Mother, June 11, 12:14 pm. There many kinds of tax fraud. Your post notes the taxpayer paying high taxes and getting poor schools in return…not a literal fraud.

A more literal tax fraud is when a charter school such as FSA–a public school receiving $30 million in tax monies over 10 years– uses those monies in illegal ways, as documented by their audit report ordered by Superintendent Avossa. Please see the audit report at the link provided in the June 5 blog-thread, “Auditors on Fulton Science Academy: Environment of resistance and obstructionism.”

FSA gave contracts to businesses that had personal or business ties to their administrators or board members (Turkish-based companies), without issuing general RFPs or bids; and those businesses had higher prices than other local companies. It’s illegal for public schools to have conflicts of interest such as this in its business dealings. In addition, they engaged in immigration fraud, hiring many Turkish nationals from Turkey as K-8 teachers (and paying their immigration expenses) when there were plenty of American K-8 teachers available in Georgia who have been laid off during the last four years.

As a private school now since their charter has been denied by the county and the state (see my posts above), they will be free to continue this tax fraud while encouraging their parents to apply for GOAL so they might receive additional taxpayers’ dollars.

Thomas

June 11th, 2012
12:58 pm

Let’s remember that all these parents who choice to use their hard earned money in a way to improve there child’s chance at a better education…….one that the public school could only aspire to provide still pay there share of the school taxes for the community and Union driven school systems.

A school system that has been flawed for few generations and one no body is willing to improve. A system that has developed a county of citizens who can’t complete a world wide level anymore when it comes to science, math and technology.

Dr. Craig Spinks/ Georgians for Educational Excellence

June 11th, 2012
1:42 pm

We Georgians should demand that our state government not only unlock information about this private school scholarship program but also unlock all financial information on every publicly-funded educational entity in our state.

Ed Advocate

June 11th, 2012
1:45 pm

Maureen, thanks for providing the opportunity for the pro and con arguments, and thanks to the Southern Ed Foundation for their thoughtful call for reform of this program. I find it so shameful that GA is diverting over $50 million to this program and think it should be dismantled. Let’s refocus our energies on supporting and improving our public schools.

TimeOut

June 11th, 2012
3:00 pm

As long as the schools that receive tax money all have the same set of rules and regulations to follow, and we can inspect the books at will……………..oh, but wait………..that is not the case. So, NO! I want us to quit pretending that we cannot fix our public schools. The current system of funding is an admission that nothing more can be done. This is such a lie. If we had no option but to improve our public schools, then that is what we would do. Let’s change the laws so that chronic disruption results in permanent removal and placement outside the system at parents’ expense. If they have no money, then the minimum expenditure by the state for an old fashioned “reform” school is the best choice. Let’s stop preaching the lies of NCLB and RTTT. There will always be those who choose not to perform. There will always be those whose abilities are quite limited and whose futures are compromised by their limited mental capacities. We should make reasonable efforts to educate all of our children without sacrificing the majority for the minority, or the one. I’ve seen one student ruin daily the educational experience of 30 others. When are we going to stop paying for this? We need changes in school law so that the system and its workers are protected from legally-sanctioned abuse by the sociopaths and their often equally deranged parents. When public schools can maintain order, teach without always teaching to the test, and emphasize the formation of critically-thinking citizens capable of functioning well in a participatory democracy, we will have no need of charter schools.

Retired Georgia teacher

June 11th, 2012
3:05 pm

The Republicans cut public education funding and raise the pupil-teacher ratio in classroom. Cuts in funding will result in few positive education outcomes for those left in public schools. The Republicans will under fund the public education system and then use the disastrous results for even more cuts to public education, so they can fund private school education.

The best students will be skimmed off for private schools and public schools will be left to educate the rest. During my last 12 years teaching in Dunwoody, I saw many students kicked out of private and charter schools come back to public school over the years. One private school parent who finances forced him to send his student to public school wrote a letter to our principal on how well he son was doing in public school.

My tax dollars should not be used to fund religious or private schools with mostly white enrollments.

bu2

June 11th, 2012
5:58 pm

An obvious question is how much are the scholarships? And how much does it cost to educate the children in the public school system? I believe the amount is much less than the cost. Dekalb County spends from $7,000 to $11,000 per student on its elementary schools with most on the high end.

So it may be that this scholarship is a bargain to the taxpayers. I know the related special needs scholarship is a great deal for everyone as the limit on it (I believe $7,000) doesn’t come anywhere close to the cost of educating those children.

daniel reid

June 11th, 2012
6:00 pm

More of the same ol’ same ol’ from those who confuse criticism with critical thinking. It’s maddening (although not surprising) to see the persistent handwringing over the alleged misuse of ‘my tax dollars,’ ’state money,’ and public funds. Anyone with a functioning web browser and a hint of curiosity would find that the SCOTUS ruled that private donations are not magically transformed into public money just because tax credits are in play. (Go read AZ Christian School Tuition Organization vs. Winn if you dare. Of course, there you’ll also find the typical ‘all money is Sam’s money until Sam says otherwise’ tripe from the dissenters.) It does look like there is some shady biz involved in these programs (see casas and ehrhart), but it’s equally clear to anyone looking deeper than the latest nyt or sef assault that there’s a whole lot of good being done.

Says here that $50 million/yr is being spent on this program. The trusty internets says about $14 billion in st/local money is poured into public schools. I reckon even someone from the highly regarded GA system (with their new ‘hey, at least you’re not in Mississippi’ campaign) could calculate that percentage. Hint: it’s a division problem that ends with a quotient of about one-third of one percent.

If we are serious about improving the quality education in this state, maybe it would be helpful to have a little transparency and honesty from both sides of the school choice debate.

bu2

June 11th, 2012
6:06 pm

@Retired
Do you have a problem with your tax $ supporting Forsyth County public schools with mostly white enrollments?

RCB

June 11th, 2012
9:42 pm

It’s a pretty tired argument to blame it on Republicans.

Anonmom

June 12th, 2012
7:47 am

Good Mother — I agree — I won’t have a problem with this program until DCSS and APS and the “governing authorities’ get a grip on the corruption, fraud, misuse and mismanagement of the public funds over which the taxpayer seems to have zero control and into which all taxpayers (if they pay… under SPLOST, federal taxes for the Title 1 programs and property taxes and state taxes — all at the threat of jail and foreclosure for non-payment) — until the “authorities” get a grip on that criminal activity — parents should have the right to some little control over some money in this program. On the flip side, it should be used to get “needy” kids out of the public system and shouldn’t be misused and abused and the “authorities” should be “checking” that abuse as well… There’s a theme here — I”m against the abuse. If the public system hadn’t misused the trust and been so inept and corrupt over all these years, then perhaps so many wouldn’t think this to be necessary. I’m at a point where all of out tax dollars being spent on school should be done this away, so they can be fed in at the bottom and filter up — with the caveat that there should be forensic audits of both public and, perhaps, private, entities to ensure that the dollars are actually being used the way they are supposed to be used and not for “non-educational” purposes… we don’t currently have this going on. And that, my friends, is our biggest problem… the dollars are walking away in much larger sums than are involved in this program from the top levels of the large systems and we’ve been allowing it for many, many years. This is “fun” to bash because the institution involved may be teaching stuff that many don’t like (including me).

Proud Teacher

June 12th, 2012
11:10 am

Public is public school, period. Private is not public, period. No spin on the words private and public are needed. It is what it is. Separate the private from the public. Stop the total dismantling and destruction of the public school. Use common sense.

My2Cents

June 12th, 2012
11:34 am

If I participate in this private school tax credit that takes what property tax away from the school system? The privates school tax credit affects income tax. I’m not getting the hysteria – can someone please explain?

YALLOweMe

June 12th, 2012
11:43 am

What if the law is amended to allow a couple filed (taxes) jointly to designate their contribution of up to $2500 to a private school for a specific student? That was the intended purpose of this tuition credit provision. How would you feel? Enlighten us.

YALLOweMe

June 12th, 2012
11:47 am

@”The Republicans cut public education funding and raise the pupil-teacher ratio in classroom.”

Gee, Retired Teach, you are still drinking the Dumbercrat KookAid. Both Republicans and Dems are equally bad. Nobody is for school voucher. Let parents decide what they want to do with their tax money. Oh wait. That would scare you even more.

daniel reid

June 12th, 2012
5:48 pm

@Proud, why the rush to protect a state system that ranks nearly last in a nation that most recently ranked 25th internationally in math, 17th in science and 14th in reading? No right thinking supporter of education reforms is suggesting dismantling public schools, but no one using the common sense you trumpet finds the current system acceptable or anything to be proud of.

We are world leaders in no category but education spending and yet the bureaucrats offer no solution other than ’spend more!’ and ‘hands off my precious cash cow!’ Meanwhile, Junior can’t read, write, add or think for himself. Or dream anything bigger than the bigscreen that hangs on the wall of daddy’s heavily mortgaged house. Blame the teachers, the parents, the students, the unions, the politicians, the media. Blame us all. There’s plenty to go around.

I don’t believe this tax credit program is THE solution, but it can be part of it. It’s something beyond the status quo, something proven with bipartisan support in other states (look south), and something that is helping the lives of some several thousand kids at a tiny fraction of the total education budget. I agree we need to stop the secrecy and wrongdoing here (primarily from pharisaical Christians who think that a D beside any name means Devil). Let’s insist that corrupt dems pester the corrupt repubs until the whole complacent lot does something different and plugs the holes in this program and explores ways to use it to the benefit of the most Georgians. Ya know, the public.

Or we can continue to elevate the delivery method and our own self interests to the level of sovereign at the expense of our children. Common sense really.

RBN

June 12th, 2012
8:18 pm

Okay @RCB, let’s blame it on the group that has controlled the legislature since 2003, and the governorship since the 2002 election ……Oh wait they are Republicans, who have decinmated public school funding in Georgia causing drastic teacher layoffs, class size increases, disolving of programs to help close the achievement gap, a 3rd world number of instructional days, and implemented a testing based education accountability that is driving people from the public schools..all designed to get to full vouchers.

Proud Teacher

June 13th, 2012
10:24 pm

This state wouldn’t rank so low below the other states if the teachers were allowed to teach a decent curriculum and the administrators were allowed to maintain a better code of discipline and integrity in the schools. Tax credit and vouchers reduce support for public schools.

Self-interest? On whose part? The radicals who want to privatize all education or the non-educators who want to dictate how to teach although they’ve never darkened the door of a classroom since they last attended school.

You don’t cut the calories for an underfed patient. Use the same metaphor for public education. We can’t do more with less, especially when we teachers are continually punished for what we are not allowed to control.

Decimating the public schools is not a solution; it is yet another punishment so that the special interest groups can have their selfish goals maintained.

I simply cannot adopt the attitude of “to hell with the kids. It’s all about the bottom line of the financial report and the numbers on too many standardized tests.” These students are individuals, not numbers. Treat them as such.