The missing pieces in Georgia …

The Southern Education Foundation’s new and scathing report on the Georgia Tax Credit Scholarship does veer into some unfortunate doctrinaire attacks on religion and race, but its description of the missing layers of public accountability is largely on target. That the report’s title, A Failed Experiment, turns on some unproven assumptions is, unfortunately, part and parcel to debate. The reality is that, three years into this program, no one can really say.

The report states:

The law in its present form contains a number of troubling features. It lacks transparency regarding contributors, beneficiaries, and the criteria by which scholarships are awarded or even the size and number of scholarships awarded. Nor do the schools involved appear to be subject to any accountability regarding the academic standards in force or academic outcomes of their students. There are no income limits for eligibility and, in the absence of a mandate to report demographic information on participating students, it is difficult to see how the program is meeting its stated policy objective of increasing the affordability of private schools for low-income families.

Though the report suffers generally from conjecture and overstatement, that observation is certainly credible. A law that was to serve low-income children, for example, does in fact contain no income eligibility requirement and no requirement that income even be gathered and reported. Worse, some of the lapses in execution appear to have been by design. For example, the Georgia law requires scholarship students to come from public schools (unless they are starting kindergarten), which is a common provision in other states. The report not only documents that private schools and scholarship organizations are counseling parents to beat the system by merely registering at a public school. It also features transcripts of a legislative author now telling schools he intended to create the loophole by inserting the word “enroll” as opposed to “attend” in the law.

Needless to say, this is no way to inspire public confidence. Private learning options don’t need to be held to precisely the same standards as traditional public schools in order to prove their value in a diverse and customized world of education. But these scholarships are funded by tax-credited contributions that would otherwise end up in the state treasury and they must be answerable to the public. That includes assuring the money is spent as intended and that the scholarships are provided only to the target students.

As readers of this blog are aware, we work for a Tax Credit Scholarship program in Florida. So it is no surprise that we believe fervently that these kinds of learning options are a vital tool for economically disadvantaged students who suffer enormous odds and have few choices. But we also see these programs as part of the public education system, broadly defined, and so the challenge is to find the right vehicles for public transparency and assessment. As this new report suggests, Georgia has a long way to go.

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BY Jon East

Jon East is special projects director for Step Up For Students. Previously, he was a member of the editorial board and the Sunday commentary editor at the St. Petersburg Times, Florida’s largest daily newspaper, where he wrote about education issues for most of his 28 years at the paper. He was also a reporter and editor at the Evening Independent and Ocala Star-Banner. He earned a journalism degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.