Panel approves revised private school tax credit bill

A state House of Representatives subcommittee voted Wednesday to expand the state’s private school tax credit program, angering critics who had grudgingly backed earlier efforts to continue it.

The program uses the lure of state tax credits to spur donations to student scholarship organizations. Those SSOs turn the money over to private schools that distribute it to students in the form of scholarships. Begun in 2008, the program was designed to help students afford the switch from public school to private school.

Some $51.5 million was set aside in 2012 for tax credits to be claimed by donors. The bill approved by the House subcommittee would expand that pool of tax credits to $65 million.

Critics who have long objected to the program on a variety of fronts blasted its expansion at a time when public school districts, which educate more than nine of every 10 students in Georgia, are still struggling to cope with years of state budget cuts.

“I am astonished that Gov. Deal and the subcommittee have miraculously found $15 million to add to the current $51 million that is now being diverted annually to finance private schools’ scholarships in Georgia during a year of state budget cuts,” said Steve Suitts, vice president of the Southern Education Foundation, a nonprofit group that pushes for more support for public education in Georgia. “What part of the state’s budget will be reduced to provide this private school program with a 30 percent increase in funding?”

Supporters of the program say it gives the parents of children trapped in failing public schools an alternative.

“It’s been a life-changing program,” said Robin Lamp, the single mother of two daughters who attend private school in McDonough with scholarship assistance.

Lamp said she wanted her children to attend private school because she does not have confidence in the public schools. The scholarships her girls receive don’t cover the full cost of their private school tuition.

“I’ll pay as a single mom,” Lamp said. “I just need a little help.”

A version of the bill that passed the Ways and Means subcommittee Wednesday has already passed the Senate, where it was introduced by one of Gov. Nathan Deal’s floor managers, Sen. Charlie Bethel, R-Dalton. It is expected to be debated in the full Ways and Means Committee on Thursday.

The bill that passed the Senate, Senate Bill 243, would have capped the program at $50 million per year and had the support of the Southern Education Foundation, its most outspoken critic.

SEF has complained that, while the program was touted as a way to help poor students escape troubled public schools, there is no certainty that the students it has helped are poor or that they actually attended public school.

Scholarship assistance was not limited to poor students, and the program did not require that students attend a public school before transferring to a private school and receiving scholarship assistance.

SEF contends that some parents enrolled their child in a public school but never had that child attend the school. The child would then be “transferred” to a private school and be eligible to receive scholarship assistance.

SB 243 sought to fix that by requiring that students attend a public school for at least six weeks before transferring to a private school with scholarship assistance. The bill was amended to allow a student to get private school scholarship assistance through the program if the student’s parents had religious objections to having them attend a public school.

The bill approved by the House subcommittee on Wednesday does not include that amendment. Instead, a student could get private school assistance through the program if the student has been home-schooled for a year.

That change pacified some who had argued that the religious exception would essentially eviscerate the requirement that a student attend a public school before transferring to a private school with scholarship assistance.

Still, the expansion of the pool of tax credits to $65 million drew sharp rebukes from groups that support public schools.

“It’s still siphoning public dollars away from public education,” said Karen Hallacy, legislative chair of the Georgia PTA.