Parents sue state over private school scholarship program

A controversial state program that offers tax credits to people who fund private school scholarships is unconstitutional and robs public schools of much-needed financial support, a lawsuit filed by Georgia parents Thursday argues.

The group, backed by the Atlanta-based Southern Education Foundation, says the student scholarship tax credits violate both the state constitution and tax laws by, among other things, providing indirect public funding to religious schools, giving donors illegal benefits and allowing a publicly funded school program to be run by private groups.

Steve Suitts, vice president of the foundation, said since the program was started in 2008, more than $280 million has been “diverted” to an “unregulated system of support for private schools” with no oversight from the state Department of Education.

The programs allow Georgians to obtain $58 million a year worth of income tax credits for donating to scholarship organizations. Those organizations, in turn, provide scholarships for students to attend private schools. More than 13,000 scholarships were given in 2012 as part of the program.

The private scholarship effort has both passionate supporters and equally passionate critics. Backers say it is an important step toward giving parents greater choice in where their children attend school. Opponents say it provides a boost to private, often religion-affiliated schools while draining money from a public education system that has been battered by billions of dollars in state funding cuts.

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