Amid a growing trend of state legislation providing tax credit scholarships to private school students, a new report from the Southern Education Foundation (SEF) finds that Georgia’s program providing tax credit scholarships to private school students has been a failure during its first three years of operations.
Georgia is currently one of seven states with tax credit scholarship legislation, yet it stands out as an exception among these states as the least accountable and the least effective in serving any public purpose. Georgia’s program was created in 2008 by the Georgia General Assembly for the purpose of helping low income children transfer from poorly performing public schools to private schools. The program allows individuals and corporations to divert state taxes (up to an annual total of $50 million) to private student scholarship organizations (SSOs) that, in turn, distribute funding for students to attend private schools.
SEF finds that the state program has failed to achieve this primary aim, has cost Georgia taxpayers over $70 million in diverted state revenues, and, with a near-complete lack of accountability, has enabled widespread abuses.
According to findings in the SEF report, Georgia’s SSO program fails in several significant ways:
- Scholarships are awarded to students who did not transfer from a public school as intended by the law;
- More than one in ten of all SSO-affiliated private schools appear to be ineligible to receive funding;
- SSOs have failed to distribute and spend as much money annually on scholarships as the law requires and have failed to meet other requirements of the law;
- The program has failed to save taxpayer’s funds, as promised by its sponsors, and already has cost the state millions at a time when public K-12 and college education in Georgia have had deep cuts;
- There is no accountability for the program’s tax-funded educational performance;
- The program appears to fail to serve a significant number of low income students;
- The program appears to support racial isolation and segregation in private schooling;
- With religious schools comprising more than 70 percent of the SSO-affiliated schools in the program, it violates the state constitution’s ban on government aid to religious groups.
Amendments to the law passed last month make Georgia the only state to criminalize public disclosure of information about the program. They also establish an automatic annual increase in the $50 million cap on the program, but do nothing to increase accountability.
SEF is calling on the Georgia legislature to end, or vastly mend, the failed program. SEF also cautions other states considering such legislation that Georgia’s costly experiment should serve as a warning – and should not be used as a model.