Georgia lawmakers could expand a controversial scholarship program this legislative session. Some Republicans in the state House and Senate want to steer more money toward the program.
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Here’s how the plan works: Taxpayers who donate to a Student Scholarship Organization (SSO) get dollar-for-dollar tax credits. So, if someone donates $500 to a SSO, he would get a state tax credit in the same amount. Then, the SSOs award the money to parents who want to switch their children from public to private schools.
Contributions are currently capped at $58 million. Lawmakers aren’t the only ones who think the amount should be greater.
“For the past four years, that cap of $58 million has been met on the first business day of the year, which means no one else can give after that,” says Benita Dodd, vice president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, a state-focused, free-market think tank.
Republican lawmakers have introduced legislation that would raise the cap. However, House and Senate members disagree on what the new limit would be. The House has proposed $85 million. The Senate has pitched $65 million.
Some education advocates are opposed to rerouting potential tax revenue to private schools, which include religious institutions.
“I just don’t believe that we as a state can afford to divert this much from public education, nor do I think we should,” says Carolyn Wood with Public Education Matters Georgia. The advocacy organization opposes raising the cap.
However, the Georgia Supreme Court ruled in June that the program should stay in place. The court reasoned tax credits aren’t the same as tax revenue, since the money doesn’t officially enter the Department of Revenue’s coffers.
Unlike some states with similar programs, Georgia doesn’t require that scholarships go to families with greater financial need. Some education advocates have pushed for that language to be included in legislation. Dodd doesn’t think it should be.
“At any given time, so many of us who think we are in a good financial state lose money —through divorces, through losing our jobs,” Dodd says. “I really don’t think that restricting that money is going to help where the need is. I think [the program] should be open to everybody.”
Some critics of the program have said there’s no accountability system. Students who receive scholarships aren’t tracked at their new schools to see if they’re making academic progress. Dodd says that’s not necessarily the point of the program. Parents have a variety of reasons for wanting to send their children to private institutions — from bullying to specific academic programs or teaching methods, she says.
Public education advocates, like Wood, see it differently.
“It’s the state’s requirement to know that the education it’s funding is meeting the state’s standards,” Wood says. “We don’t provide for any accountability of student success in these schools. That’s the very essence of what the state’s responsibility to its students is.”
Legislation on raising the program’s cap is headed to conference committee, after the House disagreed on the Senate’s version of the bill. A similar proposal, which raised the cap to $100 million, stalled in the Legislature last year.