Lawmakers OK letting taxpayers direct more money toward private schools

The Georgia Capitol, where lawmakers approved an expansion of Georgia's taxpayer-funded private school tuition program on Monday, April 4, 2022. FILE PHOTO: BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM

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The Georgia Capitol, where lawmakers approved an expansion of Georgia's taxpayer-funded private school tuition program on Monday, April 4, 2022. FILE PHOTO: BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM

The bill now goes to Georgia’s governor for his signature

Georgia lawmakers decided on Monday that taxpayers should be able to steer more money to K-12 private schools.

The General Assembly approved legislation that increases the cap on tax credits for contributions to the Georgia student scholarship program, raising it by $20 million from the current $100 million starting next year.

Some liken the program to vouchers, which are direct government payments to private schools. Unlike vouchers, the student scholarship program draws funds directly from taxpayers who then get the same amount of money credited against the taxes they owe the state.

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Supporters say students should be able to attend a private school with help from taxpayers, asserting that public schools cannot serve every student well. Opponents say the program weakens public schools by taking money from them.

On Monday, House Bill 517 passed the Senate 30-21 and then the House 98-68. It now goes to Gov. Brian Kemp for his signature.

The legislation would also require more transparency from the nonprofit organizations that get the money from taxpayers and allocate it toward private school tuitions. The student scholarship organizations would have to report the number of student recipients and average scholarship amount per county where the money is distributed.

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The legislation also requires the organizations to put minimum amounts of their interest earned on deposits and investments toward the scholarships, the percentage increasing with the size of the organization.

A state audit last year criticized the level of transparency with the program, observing that there was too little data available to calculate whether the organizations’ fees were reasonable.

The legislation passed the House last year with small changes to the program. The Senate then approved it with amendments, and no further action occurred before that year’s portion of the legislative session ended.

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Then in this second year of the two-year session, the House agreed to the Senate’s changes. It made an additional change: doubling the annual cap on contributions. The Senate disagreed to the change, but the House dug in its heels. A handful of legislators from each chamber negotiated the final version that passed Monday, the final day of the legislative session.

Sen. John Kennedy, R-Macon, was among them. “This program is serving the poorest of Georgia’s children and the poorest of Georgia’s families and giving them hope,” he said before the Senate’s vote.

But Sen. Elena Parent, D-Atlanta, said there wasn’t enough public reporting to know what the program has done. “We have had very little reporting and oversight over this use of public money going into private schools,” she said.