The school-choice and voucher movement has long tried to sell itself to the public as a public-spirited crusade to allow low-income, often minority and inner-city students to escape bad public schools.
However, critics of the movement have long suspected that it was something else entirely. They have argued that the movement was actually an ill-disguised scam to divert public taxpayer money to private schools that serve a middle-class clientele, with the plight of poor students being used as a cynical cover.
Sadly, there is overwhelming evidence that in Georgia, the second interpretation is the correct interpretation.
The biggest success of the school-choice movement in Georgia came in 2008, when the state Legislature passed a “scholarship program” supposedly intended to help lower-income students attend private schools. Under the law, individuals and corporations who donate to a “student scholarship organization” can receive a dollar-for-dollar credit against their state taxes. In other words, if you donate $2,000 to a SSO, you can deduct $2,000 directly from your Georgia tax bill.
The SSO is then supposed to use those contributions to help defray tuition for low-income students. But in most cases, that’s not how it works. Instead, affluent families and relatives of private-school students are donating money under the guise that it will be used for “scholarships,” and are getting a dollar-for-dollar tax reduction on that donation. They then collect the scholarship that they funded in the form of lower tuition. It operates as a direct taxpayer subsidy of private schools.
For example, today’s New York Times reports on how the Georgia law was explained to parents attending a meeting last year at Gwinnett Christian Academy:
“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….
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.
Is this an example of a well-intended law that has unfortunately gone awry? No, it is not. Despite what they have claimed publicly, it is a law that is working precisely as its supporters intended. Furthermore, in funneling state tax dollars to private and often religious-based institutions, it is in violation of the Georgia constitution, which states that “no money shall ever be taken from the public treasury, directly or indirectly, in aid of any church, sect, cult, or religious denomination or of any sectarian institution.”
The charge that the law is being used precisely as intended may seem harsh, but the comparison with a similar program in neighboring Florida is telling. In Florida, only students from families that are at or below 185 percent of the poverty line may receive scholarships. Georgia law contains no income limit on recipients.
Florida law requires that private schools receiving significant tax-derived scholarship money report the performance of its students on standardized tests. Georgia law has no such requirement, and there is no accountability for the education that state tax dollars are providing.
Florida also requires that private schools benefiting from such programs release demographic information about students receiving the scholarships. Georgia schools are not required to collect or report such data.
These and other problems with the Georgia law are laid out in a well-researched, comprehensive report by the Atlanta-based Southern Education Foundation. Initially, the SEF was intrigued by the new law, which seemed to mesh nicely with its own mission of supporting “creative solutions to ensure fairness and excellence in education for low-income students from preschool through higher education.”
However, as SEF officials looked more closely at the law and how it operates, they discovered that it was not working at all as its proponents had claimed:
“(The program) lacks transparency regarding contributors, beneficiaries, and the criteria by which scholarships are awarded or even the size and number of scholarships awarded. Nor do the schools involved appear to be subject to any accountability regarding the academic standards in force or academic outcomes of their students. There are no income limits for eligibility and, in the absence of a mandate to report demographic information on participating students, it is difficult to see how the program is meeting its stated policy objective of increasing the affordability of private schools for low income families.”
In fact, rather than serve as a lifeline for poor minority students seeking to escape bad public schools, the SEF report found that “it appears from available sources that the Georgia tax credit scholarships have done little more than support white students to attend schools that already have extreme racial isolation.”
The lack of accountability consciously built into the bill has had other consequences as well. For example, the AJC reported earlier this year that three people running a private scholarship fund in Cumming are being paid $175,600 each to administer the money flowing through that supposedly charitable organization. Those salaries are in effect being paid with taxpayers’ money that is flowing through those organizations with little or no state oversight, and administrators at other poorly regulated SSOs are also collecting six-figure incomes.
Information about the salaries was obtained through federal tax records, not through state data. In fact, state legislators have made it a criminal offense for anyone to release a whole range of financial and tax data regarding the state scholarship program, the organizations that administer them or the schools that receive the money.
The cynicism and deception involved in passing and implementing the Georgia scholarship program is impressive. It also serves as a warning sign regarding a proposed constitutional amendment that will go before the voters in November that would strip local school districts of the power to control the creation of charter schools.
The proposed amendment is being pushed by the same groups and politicians who pushed the scholarship legislation, using similar arguments about trying to help those trapped in underperforming schools. Their track record suggests that their concern is insincere, and that their larger goal is to undermine public education by diverting public dollars to finance schools pursuing a private agenda.
– Jay Bookman