Crossfire over plans to expand private-school-tuition tax credit program

Student scholarship organizations are marshaling their forces behind dueling plans to expand a controversial private school tuition tax credit program.

That program allows individuals and businesses to claim a state tax credit after they donate to one of the student scholarship organizations in Georgia raising money for private school scholarships.

Critics, noting that the program does not direct the scholarships to low-income students, have blasted it as a sop for the wealthy. They also argue that it deprives the state of tax revenue that could be used to support traditional public schools, which educate the vast majority of students in Georgia.

Still, the program is immensely popular: the $58 million pool of tax credits available through the program each calendar year was claimed within three weeks this year.

State Rep. Earl Ehrhart, R-Powder Springs, who created the program in 2009, has a bill that would expand the pool of tax credits to $100 million. Ehrhart’s legislation, House Bill 759, would not limit scholarship assistance to low-income students.

Some legislators have said they supported the program’s creation because they wanted to help poor students afford the switch from a public school to a private one. Ehrhart, however, has said he wants to make it easier for all interested students to switch from public to private school, regardless of their family’s income level.

H.B. 759 is backed by Georgia GOAL, the largest student scholarship organization in the state.

But another student scholarship organization, Arete Scholars Fund, backs a different bill, House Bill 239, sponsored by state Rep. Buzz Brockway, R-Lawrenceville.

H.B. 239 would not alter or expand the existing program. Instead, it would create a separate, $25 million pool of tax credits. To access those tax credits, donors — corporate only — would have to give money that is directed to low-income students.

Arete plans to bus at least 150 low-income students to the Capitol on Tuesday to rally in favor of the bill.

In a letter to supporters over the weekend, GOAL President Lisa Kelly said passage of H.B. 239 would likely kill future expansion of the original program.

“It would be extremely unfair and counterproductive to create a separate tax credit scholarship program to benefit one or two SSOs (student scholarship organizations) that did not work hard enough to meet their corporate fundraising goals,” Kelly wrote.

Arete Executive Director Derek Monjure fired back on Sunday, telling his organization’s supporters that the bill will expand private school opportunities for low-income students.

On Monday, he told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that opposition to H.B. 239 is rooted in its requirement that scholarship assistance be directed to low-income students.

Efforts on Monday to reach Kelly for a response were unsuccessful.

Time is running short for both H.B. 759 and H.B. 239. Neither has passed the House of Representatives, and, typically, bills that don’t make it through a legislative chamber before Crossover Day aren’t passed into law that session. Crossover Day — when bills that have passed in one chamber cross over to the other — is scheduled for Monday.

Either or both of the bills could be added to another piece of legislation and passed into law that way.

Public education backers who oppose the tax credit program don’t support either plan to expand it.

Steve Suitts, president of the Southern Education Foundation, a nonprofit group that calls for more support for traditional public education, said the program is “fatally flawed.”

Tracey-Ann Nelson, government relations director for the Georgia Association of Educators, asked: “Why are we creating new ways to divert dollars from the state of Georgia without completely evaluating how the effective the current program is?”

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