Eleven states have adopted tax-credit programs that encourage donations to private-school scholarship programs, according to the National Conference of State Legislators.
None of those programs is like Georgia’s program.
Most states at least make an effort to ensure that tax-subsidized scholarships are limited to lower-income students who might otherwise be stuck in an underperforming public school. That’s the whole philosophy behind the program nationwide. States do not want the program to become a backdoor means of subsidizing private school tuition for those who can already afford it.
But Georgia law, by design, contains no such safeguard. It is against the law for the state to even ask how many of the scholarships are being awarded to lower-income students.
Most states also attempt to monitor the performance of private schools receiving that taxpayer subsidy. And they should. Under the tax-credit system, every dollar donated to a private-school scholarship fund is a dollar not paid to the state treasury, meaning that state government takes a serious hit on such programs. (In Georgia, it’s $51 million a year.) If the state is going to subsidize private-school tuition in that amount, it has an obligation to the taxpayer and to the student to ensure that the education meets minimal standards.
But Georgia law, again by design, contains no such safeguard.
In Arizona, for example, the corporate tuition tax credit is limited to low-income students. Private schools that accept the money must administer a standardized test and release those results to the public. In Florida — often cited as a model for such programs — scholarships are limited to students who qualify for reduced or free lunches, and schools that accept 30 or more such scholarship students must release results of a national standardized test to the public.
Pennsylvania’s tuition tax-credit program is means-tested. Indiana’s program is means-tested and requires standardized testing. The same is true in Virginia. In Iowa, only lower-income students are eligible for the taxpayer-subsidized scholarship, and schools must be certified by the state Department of Education, which requires standardized testing as an indicator of quality.
Louisiana imposes an income limit and requires means-testing and standardized testing. New Hampshire requires means-testing. As does Rhode Island. And Oklahoma limits recipients to students attending failing public schools.
State after state — most of them conservative — either tries to target the aid to those in need or to make the schools accountable for their product. Many do both.
Georgia does neither.
Georgia is different in another way as well. In most states, students eligible for a private-school scholarship had to be attending a public school when first applying. Again, the intent was to give students in public school an option, not to create a tax subsidy for those already in private schools.
Yet when Georgia’s law was drafted, it required only that students be enrolled in a public school, not attend a public school. The distinction might seem subtle, but it was deception by design. The slight word change meant that private school students could enroll in a public school, with no intention of ever attending, and thus become eligible for scholarship money. And that’s just what they were encouraged to do. As one of the bill’s sponsors, state Rep. David Casas of Lilburn, was caught telling a group of parents:
“Some people felt a little bit weird about that; felt it was a little dishonest that they would take their child, enroll them in a public school and not have them actually attend, but all of a sudden they actually qualify for a scholarship. I’m telling you, we deliberately put the wording in there for that.”
This year, Casas is joining state Rep. Earl Ehrhart of Powder Springs in an effort to greatly expand the scholarship programs. The current tax-credit limit of $2,500 for a married couple would disappear. Instead, you could eliminate up to 75 percent of your state tax bill through donations to a private school scholarship. The annual total of such tax credits would increase to $80 million, a $29 million hit to an already inadequate state budget.
But their bill makes no effort to tighten how the scholarships are used.
Again, by design.
– Jay Bookman