Key lawmaker questions public subsidy for private schools

A program that channels millions of public dollars to private schools is under scrutiny at the Gold Dome, as lawmakers consider whether to create another one.

House Bill 865 would add $25 million to the tuition tax credit pot, atop a program that already gives $58 million a year in state money back to private-school "donors."

That’s the term in the law for recipients of the tuition tax credit, even though these taxpayers recoup the entire amount of their school “donation.”

A key Georgia lawmaker took issue with the premise this week, contending that if he gives money to a cause and gets it all back in a tax credit, it’s really the state that’s the donor.

“I’m not really making a donation. I’m directing where tax dollars get spent,” said Jay Powell, R-Camilla, chairman of the House Ways and Means committee.

On Wednesday, Rep. Mike Dudgeon, the chief co-sponsor of HB 865, was trying to get his bill through a Ways and Means subcommittee when Powell forced a major amendment that could someday have implications for the existing program. He asked Dudgeon to reduce the tax credit to 80 percent. This means 20 percent of any donation would come from the donor's — rather than the state's — pocket.

Dudgeon, R-Johns Creek, said he was willing to make the change to get his bill through Powell’s committee, even though he was unsure how it would affect donors and program revenue. Proponents of his bill believe the amendment would dampen donor enthusiasm. Dudgeon said Thursday he was still working on the amendment and talking with supporters about its potential effect on program revenue. He said he was “concerned” about the change.

Dudgeon’s proposal differs in several ways from the existing program. Instead of applying to any private school student, it only allows tax-subsidized scholarships for those from “low-income” households. It also mandates that recipients be tested on a recognized achievement exam, with the results reported to the state. And it requires new financial and other reporting transparency rules that would not apply to the existing program.

“The transparency in there is terrific,” said Michael O’Sullivan, the Georgia director of Students First, a group that advocates for better public schools and for alternatives to them. His group likes that the scholarships are for poor children and that, unlike the existing program, the money follows them if they change schools.

But Georgia’s leading teacher advocacy group sees Dudgeon’s proposal as a threatening “voucher” program that undermines funding for public schools. “It still means that the state is spending $25 million from the general fund to private schools on top of the $58 million that we’re spending under the current program,” said Margaret Ciccarelli, a lobbyist for the Professional Association of Georgia Educators.

The existing program has been around since 2008, and proponents have been pushing for more money, since the applications to donate have been exceeding the cap on the first day the program opens each January.

If those proponents push too hard, though, they might see their tax credit amended, Powell said after his hearing. “At some point, they’re going to want to raise the cap or do something else, and it will be revisited.”

He said “there’s something that just strikes me as wrong about calling something a donation when it doesn’t cost them anything.”