Tax credit scholarships up slightly

The latest state report shows a $5.3 million increase for private school students

The value of scholarships awarded through Georgia's education tax credit program increased slightly in 2015, though total funding available for them remained about the same as the prior year.

An Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis of the latest annual reports compiled by the state shows 13,555 students received tax credit based scholarships to attend private K-12 schools in 2015, up from 13,428 the prior year.

The numbers were published in December and are available on the Georgia Department of Revenue's website. The agency is required by state law to compile and publish numbers submitted each year by what are called "student scholarship organizations," which are conduits between taxpayers and private schools.

The program allows taxpayers to reduce their tax burden by the amount of money they contribute to private schools. Taxpayers can pledge up to $1,000 for an individual, $2,500 per married couple and many thousands of dollars for certain business entities.

The Georgia Supreme Court heard oral arguments Monday in a Fulton County lawsuit brought by taxpayers who contend the program violates the state's constitutional prohibition on public funding of religious groups. Many of the schools that benefit from the scholarship tax credit money are religious.

Though the scholarship organizations are required by law to report data to the revenue department, one (Ideate Education Empowerment, Inc.) failed to for 2015 as did two the prior year. Altogether, 27 reported giving students $47.6 million for private school scholarships in 2015, a $5.3 million increase over 2014. Tax credits allocated to the scholarship organizations remained at about $58 million, the cap set on the tax credit by the General Assembly, though only $52.8 million of the credits were actually used.

The largest organization in terms of scholarships given and credits received was again the Georgia GOAL Scholarship Program, which captured nearly a third of the revenue available in 2015 and gave out a third of the scholarship dollars.

About a quarter of the families that received scholarship dollars from Georgia GOAL were in the bottom fourth of income in Georgia and 60 percent were in the bottom half. For the program as a whole, less than a fifth of the families were in the bottom quartile; 45 percent were in the bottom half.

Proponents of the program say it provides subsidies to children who would otherwise be unable to afford private school tuition, but critics say the level of reporting required by the state is too low to allow anyone to calculate what proportion of the money is going to students from low-income households.

The scholarship organizations must report the number of families that receive scholarships and where they fall on Georgia's adjusted gross income spectrum when divided into four parts, or quartiles, but not how much money they got.

Researchers at Georgia State University noted in 2014 that the organizations don't have to report the total number or dollar amount of scholarships by quartile.

"This reporting provides little detail regarding the income distribution of scholarship recipients and no information on the distribution of scholarship dollars," says the report, "Georgia's Tax Credit Scholarship Program," by Robert Buschman and David L. Sjoquist. They also wrote that Georgia's adjusted gross income measure is "a much narrower income definition" than what is used in setting the poverty level. They said it would be preferable to collect federal income data from scholarship recipients.

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