Jay Bookman

Opinion columnist and blogger at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, specializing in foreign relations, environmental and technology-related issues

Ga.'s private-school tuition program a classic bait and switch

Why do liberals distrust the so-called “school choice” movement, which claims to want to help low-income, often-minority students escape failing public schools? Who could argue with a goal like that?

Well, it's pretty simple: They fear that conservatives might be playing a cynical game of bait and switch, with the plight of those poor kids in bad schools used as bait to win public support for vouchers and other programs. The real goal, they suspect, is to finance the movement of middle- and upper-class kids into tax-supported private schools, far away from the poor kids whom the programs are supposed to help.

The Georgia tuition tax-credit program, which in effect diverts tax money to pay private-school tuition, proves that suspicion justified.

In an earlier column, I wrote that the state of Georgia does not collect demographic data on the students who are granted such tax-financed scholarships. I was wrong. Thanks to a change in state law, the Department of Revenue now breaks Georgia households into four broad income levels, from the poorest 25 percent to the richest 25 percent, and releases data on how many scholarships are granted in each category.

The data are revealing.

Some student scholarship organizations (SSOs) do make an honest effort to help lower-income students. For example, the Georgia GOAL Scholarship Organization, the largest in the state, granted scholarships to 920 families in the lowest-earning quartile in 2013 and to 1,397 families in the second-lowest quartile.

It also issued 1,232 scholarships to families in the third income quartile, and 127 scholarships to families in the top-earning quartile. That’s more than 1,300 tax-funded scholarships to families making more than the statewide average. Two other major SSOs, Arete Scholarship Fund and SSO America, also gave a large share of scholarships to lower-income households.

But many other SSOs are clearly just mechanisms for steering badly needed state tax dollars to already affluent families:

  • The Peach State Christian Scholarship Fund gave zero scholarships to poor families. It gave 28 scholarships to families in the highest-earning quartile.
  • Vision SSO gave zero scholarships to families in either of the two lowest-earning quartiles, but 49 to families in the highest-earning quartile.
  • Great SSO gave zero scholarships to poor families, but 33 to those in the top-earning bracket.
  • Georgia Tuition Aid Providers Inc. gave scholarships to two families in the poorest quartile; it gave scholarships to 70 families in the highest quartile.
  • An agency called “A Pay It Forward Scholarship” issued scholarships to 18 families in the lowest-earning quartile, but 419 scholarships to families in the highest-earning quartile.
  • The ALEF Fund issued scholarships to 12 families in the lowest bracket, but 158 to families in the highest bracket.
  • Faith First Georgia, which lists state Rep. Earl Ehrhart as its chief executive officer, granted scholarships to 35 families in the lowest-earning quartile and 173 to those in the highest-earning quartile. (Ehrhart has been a chief proponent of expanding the program.)
  • The Georgia Student Scholarship Organization granted scholarships to 42 families in the lowest income quartile. It gave scholarships to 684 families in the highest quartile.

Other states with such programs often set income eligibility limits to ensure that the tax revenue goes to those in need, for example restricting it to those who qualify for a free or reduced-price lunch or who fall under some percentage of the federal poverty level. Georgia sets no such standards.

As a result, a total of 1,706 scholarships were granted in 2013 to families in the lowest income quartile, while 2,248 were granted to families in the highest income quartile. I’d say that’s evidence the program isn’t working as designed, except that it’s working exactly as designed.


Note: This blog post, a version of today's AJC column, incorporates material that had been posted earlier as an update to another blog post on the topic.

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About the Author

Jay Bookman writes about government and politics, with an occasional foray into other aspects of life as time, space and opportunity allow.