Gerard Robinson recalls the first time people called on legislators to put income limits on Georgia’s tax-credit scholarships. He was one of them.
“When the coalition in Georgia worked to create” the scholarships in 2008, Robinson told me Thursday, “I was actually in the minority asking and pushing for a means-tested voucher. … When it became law, I said fine, let’s make this work.”
Robinson certainly has tried to make the $51.5 million-a-year tax-credit scholarship work. He’s a board member for the Georgia GOAL Scholarship Program, the largest of Georgia’s student scholarship organizations (SSOs) which collect donations via the tax-credit program and award them to deserving students.
But he also brings a national perspective, having worked with Milwaukee’s voucher program and as a top education officer in Florida and Virginia. And he thinks Georgia shouldn’t move backward and impose income limits, the practice known as means-testing, as other states do.
“I believe the Georgia model will give the entire school choice movement a chance to see what works,” Robinson said, “and to expand the model of social justice, because there frankly are middle-class families who earn too much to qualify for a means-tested scholarship but can’t afford educational options.”
How did he change his mind about means-testing?
“The social justice model said let’s help the people who are in most need, and that’s usually people who qualify for free and reduced price lunch,” he said. “What the model does not include is that you have middle-income families who don’t qualify for free and reduced price lunch, or who make $50 above the threshold, and in no way are they rich, but in fact they are in need.
“It’s expanding the circumference of the social justice model, while not leaving out the lower-income families who were the main constituency from the beginning.”
The lack of means-testing is one of the criticisms leveled at Georgia’s tax-credit scholarships during this legislative session. It appeared the critics had won a victory when SB 243, introduced Feb. 28, said SSOs “shall give preferences to students with financial needs” in the future.
Instead, the language was changed to say SSOs “shall consider financial needs of students” (emphasis added), a huge change in terms of legislative language that helped the bill pass the Senate on Thursday. It was a huge and necessary change, Robinson said.
“You create a [school-choice] law and you build upon it. You don’t scale back,” he said. “To scale back the eligibility formula to link to an ideological formula is not a step in the right direction. … If the goal is to help families, then let’s see this program mature as it moves forward.”
Part of that maturity includes enhancing transparency of the program — and making clear it is illegal for SSOs to let donors earmark their gifts for a family member or friend.
Beyond those governance matters, Robinson attributed the renewed cry for means-testing to “the politics of rich and poor.”
“Somehow, when you don’t help only poor people, by default you’re [allegedly] benefiting extremely rich people,” he said. “That’s not true.”
“Middle-income families, in this economy in particular, are in need of financial assistance to help pay for educational options. And the money we provide, about $3,200 [annually per scholarship] on average, it’s not covering full tuition, it’s not covering half-tuition, but it’s helping people make ends meet.”
– By Kyle Wingfield