Kyle Wingfield

Political commentary and opinion from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's conservative blogger

Claims against tax-credit scholarships fall flat

In a Fulton County courtroom this morning, some lawyers will try to explain why a group of children -- many of them racial minorities, the vast majority of them from low- and middle-income families -- should be taken out of good schools and sent back to bad schools.

That’s not exactly how these lawyers will put it, of course. But that’s the practical meaning of what their clients seek.

These lawyers and their clients want a judge to outlaw a program that allows kids to leave low-achieving or violent public schools and instead attend private schools. All at a fraction of the cost to taxpayers of keeping them in those public schools.

The arguments put forth to overturn Georgia’s tuition tax-credit scholarship program will focus on a lot of things. None of those things will have anything to do with ensuring the children who benefit from that program receive a quality education.

The arguments will be about whether Georgia law precludes taxpayer money from being spent for religious purposes. Spoiler alert: It does -- but the U.S. Supreme Court has also previously ruled, in a case about the same kind of program in Arizona, that tax credits are not a public expenditure.

New Hampshire’s Supreme Court last month cited that federal ruling in dismissing dismissed a similar challenge to that state’s tax-credit scholarship program. (EDIT: This text has been edited to reflect the fact that, while the New Hampshire court did uphold that state's tax-credit scholarship program, it did not cite the U.S. Supreme Court ruling.) It is hard to see why Georgia courts should reach a different conclusion.

The arguments will also be about whether Georgia’s program deprives our state’s students of critical education funding, particularly after years of budget cuts. It will be fascinating to see how they conclude that increasing education spending by 0.4 percent will be a real boost, when sending these children back to public schools would increase their enrollment by 0.8 percent, or twice as much.

The amount of spending on these tax-credit scholarships is publicly reported. In each of the past three years, spending on each public school student in Georgia (about $8,500 over that time, including local dollars) has been more than double the amount of tax credits claimed per scholarship recipient (less than $4,000).

What’s more, starting with 2013 we also have information about the finances of these recipients’ families. Legislators mandated this information be reported amid allegations the money was simply going to a bunch of rich kids.

Those allegations turned out to be false: More than three-quarters of scholarship kids in 2013 come from families whose adjusted gross income is $62,201 or less. Almost half of the families had an AGI of less than $30,000.

Like other school-choice programs in Georgia, demand for these scholarships and the tax credits that fund them far exceeds their supply. Perhaps the only thing that outstrips demand for these programs is the determination of education status-quoists to shut them down.

They’re welcome to keep hiring lawyers to make their arguments. But that doesn’t mean judges ought to give them any credence.

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About the Author

Kyle Wingfield joined the AJC in 2009. He is a native of Dalton and a graduate of the University of Georgia.