Tax credit program for private schools criticized

A key Georgia lawmaker forced an amendment to a proposed subsidy program for private schools, making it more costly for donors.

House Bill 865 was written to create another tuition tax credit that would allow taxpayers to make a private school "donation" that they could recoup in the form of a tax credit.

But Jay Powell, R-Camilla, the chairman of the House Ways and Means committee, took issue with the premise, and his criticism applied equally to an already existing program that has proven wildly popular.

In recent years, the state cap on the existing program — $58 million — has been met on the first day of availability. Proponents point to that and argue for more money, but Powell said it's easy to see why it's popular, since everyone gets their money back.

“I’m not really making a donation,” he said. “I’m directing where tax dollars get spent.” He asked Rep. Mike Dudgeon, the chief co-sponsor of HB 865, to amend his bill so that donors in the proposed program would get only 80 percent of their money back.

“It makes that donor really make a donation,” Powell said.

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.

Unlike the existing program, Dudgeon's $25 million proposal is only for students from low-income households, defined as those who would qualify for a discounted school lunch (Dudgeon said he was changing the income threshold, but an amended copy of his bill was unavailable).

There are other differences: The money would follow children who change schools, where in the existing program the money stays with the school; and participating schools would have to administer a state or national achievement test and share the results with the state.

After the meeting, Powell explained his motivation to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution: “There’s something that just strikes me as wrong about calling something a donation when it doesn’t cost them anything,” he said. He said the 80 percent credit idea would not be applied to the existing program “at the current time,” but said the conversation could come up if proponents seek any changes in that program.

“At some point,” he said, “they’re going to want to raise the cap or do something else, and it will be revisited.”