From its inception, Georgia’s tax-funded private-school “scholarship” program has been shrouded in deception and guile. Its champions have misled the public and state legislators about the purpose of the program, how it would function and who it would benefit, and they continue to mislead today.
Yet with state money tight and public schools struggling just to stay open the traditional 180 days, defenders of the scholarship program want to double the size of the program to $100 million a year.
I have a better idea: If the program can’t be made open and accountable, with demonstrable evidence that it is serving those it was created to help, it ought to be abolished altogether.
Let’s take a minute to review how the program works: As a Georgia taxpayer or corporation, when you contribute a dollar to a private-school scholarship program, an offsetting dollar is deducted directly from your state tax bill. For example, if you have a state tax bill of $2,500 and donate $2,500 for a scholarship, your tax bill falls to zero. Since 2008, the program has diverted more than $170 million of state tax revenue to private schools.
According to its supporters, the program was supposed to help finance private-school scholarships for poor children stuck in underperforming public schools. Oddly, though, the law contained no means-testing for recipients, and it quickly became obvious why. The program was a scam. Once it was passed, supporters started openly pitching the program as a means for affluent parents of children already in private school to arrange a state tax subsidy.
“You can take this chunk of money and be able to say, “No, I want this money to go to education, and not just education, I want it to go to the school of my choice, and maybe even more detailed, (to) the student of my choice,” one legislator told parents.
The question of accountability is also critical. Public schools face increasing and understandable demands to be accountable for their use of tax money and their effectiveness. Students face required standardized testing; teacher evaluations are mandated; school districts are losing autonomy to the state. State officials may even strip members of DeKalb County School Board from office for failing to do their jobs properly.
So what accountability is being required from private schools accepting tax money? None. As in literally, none. We have no idea what kind of education our $170 million in tax money has provided. We have no idea who is getting the scholarships. In fact, in 2011 legislators passed a law making it a crime to release any information about the inner workings of the program.
It makes no sense: Why require increasingly minute oversight of public school dollars, while at the same time mandating willful, total blindness to how taxpayer dollars are being spent in a private setting?
In addition, much of the money is being used to subsidize schools that freely acknowledge that they discriminate against students and parents on the basis of religion. Taxpayer money should not be used in that fashion. As the Southern Education Foundation recently pointed out, those state tax dollars are also being used to subsidize schools that refuse to serve gay students or in some cases even bar students who dare to support gay rights for others.
At Providence Christian Academy near Lilburn, for example, students can be expelled or barred for “promoting, supporting, or condoning … homosexual activity or bisexual activity,” a policy that presumably would also bar the children of gay parents from attending or receiving a scholarship.
As a private institution, the folks at Providence Christian and other schools have every right to maintain that policy. Having such policies subsidized by the taxpayer is another matter entirely. If such discrimination wouldn’t be tolerated in a public school financed with taxpayer money, why should it be tolerated in a private school that is also financed with taxpayer money?
On Monday, SEF officials submitted a complaint to the state Department of Revenue that documents in great detail multiple, widespread, blatant and continuing violations of state law regarding the scholarship program. (The full complaint is available here; it makes convincing reading.) It will be interesting to see what, if anything, comes of it.
– Jay Bookman