Jay Bookman

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

Ga.'s private-school scholarship program is a mess

It’s odd to hear conservatives argue that even though a public giveaway program is inefficient and unaccountable, it ought to be expanded because it is popular. Yet that’s the argument they’re making.

The program in question is Georgia’s private-school scholarship program. It allows corporate and individual taxpayers to pay a dollar less in state taxes for every dollar that they donate to a private-school scholarship organization. If you donate $2,000 to such an outfit, for example, you pay $2,000 less in state taxes.

In 2015, the state capped that program at $58 million, and that cap was reached on January 1. Citing its popularity, supporters of the program are now pushing to almost double that cap to $100 million.

I have some questions:

— Under Georgia law, operators of scholarship organizations can keep 10 percent of donations to cover administrative costs, such as their own salaries. Yet in Alabama, the cap is 5 percent. In Louisiana and South Carolina, it’s also 5 percent. In Florida, it’s 3 percent. Why are Georgia’s scholarship organizations two or three times more inefficient, or to put it another way, two or three times more lucrative for those running them? Are they two or three times better connected politically?

— The tax-credit program has long been sold as a way to help lower-income students escape under-performing public schools. For that reason, most states have set strict income limits for eligibility for such programs. Georgia has not. Even worse, we lack even basic demographic information about who’s getting the subsidy — how many are needy, and how many are middle- and upper-class families who would send their kids to private school anyway? We don’t know because we’re not allowed to know; state law forbids collection of that data. (See update below).

— Is it working? At the insistence of state legislators, every public school in Georgia gets graded on the performance of its students, with results posted prominently on the website of the state Department of Education. That’s fine. When you take public money, you should be accountable to the public.

But if we’re going to almost double funding of this private-school scholarship program, shouldn’t we have at least a minimal idea of what we are getting? Like, what’s the graduation rate of the students involved? Are educational outcomes improved?

We don’t know, and we choose not to know. Alabama requires standardized testing of private-school students with state-subsidized tuition; it posts results and graduation rates from each private school on a state website. Florida also requires standardized testing in participating private schools, as do South Carolina, Indiana, Arizona and most other states.

Georgia requires nothing. Some schools may be doing a great job; others may be failing their students miserably. We don’t know, yet in our blindness we’re supposed to almost double the amount of state money they’re getting? How is that good governance?

-- The notion that none of the above matters because the $58 million or $100 million in question isn't really taxpayer money is a blatant dodge. If the scholarship program did not exist, that $58 million would be going into state coffers where it would be available to hire more state troopers, help keep rural hospitals open or keep teachers in public classrooms. That $58 million is being generated solely through the state's power to compel payment of taxes, and if somebody tries to claim otherwise, they are not engaging in honest debate.

Clearly, a lot of the enthusiasm for Georgia’s program is ideologically driven. While I don't share that ideology, I get it. However, ideology should not blind you to the fact that Georgia’s law is badly drafted and badly drafted on purpose. It has created a grossly inefficient program with no accountability or transparency, and it’s irresponsible to demand its expansion until those problems are addressed.


UPDATE: In comments on his own column on this subject, my colleague Kyle Wingfield points us to useful data compiled by the state Department of Revenue regarding income levels of scholarship recipients.

The DOR data are broken down by quartiles: How many scholarships went to families in the lowest-earning quarter of Georgia households, how many went to families in the second-lowest quartile, etc.  Not surprisingly, the data tell us that some student scholarship organizations truly are attempting to help lower-income students attend private schools, while others appear to be pass-through mechanisms for upper-middle and upper-income households.

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 another 1,397 families in the second-lowest quartile. It also issued 1,232 scholarships to families in the third quartile, and 127 scholarships to families in the top-earning quartile.

That's not bad, although GOAL still issued more than 1,300 scholarships to families making more than the statewide average. But by comparison with other SSOs, its performance looks sterling:

  • The Peach State Christian Scholarship Fund gave no scholarships to poor families, but 28 scholarships to families in the highest-earning quartile.
  • Vision SSO gave no scholarships to poor families, but 49 to families in the highest-earning quartile.
  • 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 18 scholarships to families in the lowest-earning quartile, and 419 scholarships to families in the highest-earning quartile.
  • The ALEF Fund issued 12 scholarships to 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 35 scholarships to low-earning families 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 scholarship to 42 families in the lowest income quartile. It gave scholarships to 684 families in the highest quartile.

If you do the math, in 2013 a total of 1,706 scholarships were granted to families in the lowest income quartile, while 2,248 were granted to families in the highest income quartile.

Again, I see no public purpose in diverting state tax dollars to helping upper-income Georgians send their children to private schools.


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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.