Time and again, state Rep. Earl Ehrhart, R-Marietta, stressed the importance of adding another $30 million to the state’s private-school scholarship program as a way to help students trapped in failed schools and failed systems.
“It is a quasi-voucher,” he told members of a House subcommittee this week. “I will admit that to anybody. It helps people get out of failed systems.” Critics of the program, he said, need to sit down and talk with the grateful parents and children who have used it to escape bad schools.
“I challenge them to look into the eyes of those parents and children and convince them that they really need to go back to the schools that were failing,” he told his fellow legislators.
There is no question that the tax-subsidized program has helped at least some low-income children move into private schools that their parents could never have afforded. However, there is also no question that the program has been and continues to be abused.
Unlike tuition-tax credits in most other states, Georgia makes no attempt to limit the scholarships to children in failing public schools or to low-income children. There is no means-testing of recipients. As a result, tax-subsidized scholarship money collected in the name of helping students in failing schools is being used to benefit economically comfortable students who have never attended public schools for a single day.
To their credit, some supporters of the scholarship program have taken steps on their own to honor its original intent. Arete Scholars Fund, one of more than 30 Georgia organizations that collect and distribute tax-subsidized scholarship money, gives scholarships only to students who are attending public schools, and it awards those scholarships on a strict, needs-based system. According to data released voluntarily by Arete, the average annual household income of its beneficiaries is $28,000, and 82 percent of those receiving aid are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches.
Georgia Goal, another scholarship organization, pursues similar need-based policies. Like Arete, it focuses its assistance on lower-income households. According to its data — again released voluntarily — its recipients come from households with an average adjusted gross income of $26,601.
Similar policies adopted into state law would go a long way to correcting the program and allowing it to serve many more students in failing schools. At the very least, state scholarship organizations should be required to release information of the type released voluntarily by Arete and GOAL, detailing how much of the $52 million in tax-financed scholarships awarded annually go to lower-income as opposed to middle- and upper-income families.
Unfortunately, we are not allowed to know such things. State law prohibits the collection or distribution of such data by the Georgia Department of Revenue. So while the plight of students in failing schools is used to generate public support for the program, we have no idea how much of the money actually goes to that cause.
It’s important to note that in its latest form, Ehrhart’s bill does contain one substantial reform. For the first time, those who donate to the scholarship program would no longer be allowed to designate who gets that scholarship, which may at least make abuse of the program more difficult. Overall, however, the program would remain the worst-managed, least transparent scholarship program of its kind in the country.
– Jay Bookman