Dems: End tax credits to fix failing schools

Senate Democratic leaders said Tuesday they are exploring the possibility of ending some popular tax credits in order to fund a grant program designed to improve failing schools aimed to counter a school takeover proposal championed by Gov. Nathan Deal.

The governor, meanwhile, said he was considering whether to exempt charter schools from his proposal to put the state’s worst schools in a special statewide “Opportunity District.” That move is meant to placate critics who said the focus of the initiative should be on more traditional public schools.

Senate Democrats view their plan as a better alternative to Deal’s proposal, which they see as a government overreach that gives the governor’s office too much power over local education programs. Their initiative, Senate Bill 124, would create “community schools” with access to health clinics, counselors and after-school tutors.

“We believe a program to address failing schools must be much more focused,” said Senate Minority Leader Steve Henson. “The issue of Deal’s constitutional amendment need not pass this year. We urge the governor and his staff to give us time to look at it, and to review our proposal.”

There is no pricetag on the program yet, though Henson said his caucus is exploring ending tax credits. He mentioned eliminating the lucrative state tax credit on aviation fuel that benefits Delta Air Lines and the $58 million tax-credit program to student scholarship organizations. Ending either tax break is considered an unlikely prospect in the Republican-controlled Legislature.

Deal, however, has indicated he was receptive to the broader Democratic plan. He said Tuesday he wanted an education commisison he assigned to investigate ways to update the state’s school funding formula to also review Henson’s proposal.

“It does not appear to be an alternative to what I’m proposing. It appears to be something that can already be done,” said Deal. “It would be one of those things that I would hope our education reform commission will look at.”

The governor needs bipartisan backing to pass his measure, which as a constitutional amendment requires a two-thirds vote in each chamber. Democrats could demand he include portions of their proposal in his overall education package.

Deal said he’s exploring other changes to his signature initiative as well. Charter school supporters argue that their schools don’t belong in Deal’s new statewide district, as they are already bound by a strict mandate to increase performance or close their doors.

The governor said he will consider whether to exempt the schools from his proposal. At least two charter schools under state oversight were on the list of 141 failing schools his office circulated last week.

“I think they have a point,” said Deal. “We have not tried to include them in it necessarily.”

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