Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, shown with legislators last week, visited Atlanta Youth Academy, a private, religious school, on Wednesday. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM

Lieutenant governor’s visit to private school stirs subsidies debate

In his first high-profile visit to a school as Georgia’s new lieutenant governor, Geoff Duncan chose a private, religious one where students receive tuition subsidies from the state.

Duncan, who took office less than two weeks ago, campaigned in part as an advocate of “school choice,” but has been sparse with details about his education plans for this year’s legislative session. During his tour of Atlanta Youth Academy on Wednesday, he provided few insights beyond expressing support for spending more money on tuition subsidies.

Public school advocates oppose these subsidies. While many of them endorse charter schools, they typically draw a line at state funding for private schools. Every additional dollar that goes to the tuition program is a dollar less that could be spent on public services such as education, law enforcement or health care, they say.

“Georgia’s children are better served by a focus on support of public schools, which continue to educate and prepare the vast majority of Georgia’s youth,” said Margaret Ciccarelli, policy chief for the state’s largest teacher advocacy group, the Professional Association of Georgia Educators.

Duncan, who sends his three boys to public schools in Forsyth County, said he supports public education, but wants parents to have an alternative if their local school is a low performer. He said the tuition tax credits, created by law in 2008, are a “proven program” and he’s looking for more opportunities to “leverage” state resources for it.

“I think if we can work with the governor to continue to grow the program, I think it’s an awesome opportunity,” he said.

Gov. Brian Kemp’s office could not be reached for comment.

According to its website, Atlanta Youth Academy, which is in southeast Atlanta, “exists to advance the kingdom of God by offering an excellent Christ-centered education to low-income, urban communities.”

The school serves children through eighth grade, and all go on to graduate from high school, said Peter Rooney, the school’s president. Nearly all also go on to college, he said. About 62 percent receive tuition subsidies from tax credits to attend the school.

The state has put $549.5 million into the tuition subsidies program since 2008, and will add another $100 million if the new, higher cap is reached this year, said Stephen Owens, an education analyst with the Georgia Budget & Policy Institute, a public education advocacy group. During the same period, Owens said, so-called “austerity” cuts reduced public school allocations by around $8 billion. He said the public reporting requirements and lack of accountability — private schools aren’t subject to the same standardized state tests as public schools — mean the public has “no idea on return on investment.”

The money comes from taxpayers who get a full credit from the state for their “contributions” to organizations that distribute scholarships. The largest is Georgia GOAL, whose president, Lisa Kelly, was on hand for Duncan’s school visit.

Kelly is thrilled that lawmakers nearly doubled the program cap last year to $100 million and that Duncan is so publicly supportive. “We would not be unhappy with a further expansion,” she said.

In an exclusive interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution after the event, Duncan briefly outlined other elements of his education plan. He supports Kemp’s plan to give schools about $70 million for security. He wants to study and find ways to increase parental engagement with their schools, perhaps using video conference technology, and hopes for legislation this year. And he wants a testing system with more immediate results than Georgia’s standardized tests, whose scores come out after the school year ends.

OUR REPORTING

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