Reform, expand private school tax credit

The Georgia Senate recently took an incremental step toward responsible and accountable private school choice by unanimously passing a bill that shines more sunlight on the Peach State’s embattled tax credit scholarship program. If the House concurs, then parents and taxpayers will have more information about the students and scholarship groups that participate.

But Senate Bill 243 doesn’t go far enough. Yes, it requires the nonprofit groups that administer the scholarships to disclose the number of students they serve and the amount of tax-credited donations they receive. That’s well worth making public — but it reveals nothing about the program’s educational value.

Why not also pull back the curtain on student performance? Most school voucher and tax credit scholarship programs in other states are designed to show the public at least how they’re performing overall in terms of student achievement.

For example, private schools participating in the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship administer a standardized test to scholarship students and report the results to an independent analyst, who studies the effectiveness of the program and reports to the state legislature.

For a quartet of reasons, Georgia should at least do something similar.

1. Parents, policy makers, educators and the taxpaying public deserve to compare the gains students make in different school environments. Ideally, comparisons should be made from school to school, but Georgians can’t even make comparisons between the public, charter and voucher-accepting private sectors of k-12 education.

2. Academic accountability would go a long way to quieting some of the more vocal critics of the Georgia program, who assert that lawmakers and advocates for school choice haven’t cared about the standards or performance of schools accepting the scholarship. Researchers who studied the nation’s oldest voucher program, the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, found that the mere public release of test results played a role in the gains voucher students made there.

3. Few private schools that take part in the program would flee from it, even if they faced a testing-and-public-disclosure requirement. A recent study by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute surveyed private schools in communities served by four of the country’s most prominent voucher programs and found only 3 percent of non-participating schools cited governmental regulations as the most important reason to opt out. Regulations that restrict student admissions and schools’ religious practices are more likely to deter school participation than are requirements pertaining to academic standards, testing and public disclosure of achievement results.

4. It lays the groundwork for a grand bargain: More transparency in exchange for more (or more generous) scholarships. Georgia students would benefit from a more generous program, but Senate Bill 243 maintains the current cap on the amount of tax credits awarded — about $50 million. The Legislature could raise that ceiling while insisting on greater transparency of the program’s effectiveness.

Indeed, families have expressed great satisfaction with the program, and undoubtedly more would opt for the scholarship if given the chance. But are satisfied customers enough? Do these private schools teach their children anything? And does their performance compare favorably with that of students who remain in public schools? Right now, we don’t know. And we should.

The Legislature ought to pass Senate Bill 243 for the transparency it does provide. But it should ask for more while loosening the limits on the program to serve more families.

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Adam Emerson is the director of program on parental choice at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education policy think tank.