By James P. Kelly
Parents, concerned citizens and business leaders in Georgia are embracing educational freedom. They no longer have to rely on an inefficient, unresponsive and costly public school monopoly.
In 2008, the Legislature adopted a program that permits taxpayers to take a state income-tax credit for their contributions to qualified student scholarship organizations, or SSOs. The SSOs use these contributions to provide scholarships to children whose parents otherwise could not afford private schools.
In 2011, the third full year of the program, the $50 million annual cap on tuition tax credits was reached with thousands of taxpayers being denied the ability to participate. This year, the tax credits are being consumed three times faster than last year. Why are Georgia taxpayers racing to support this program?
First, they love being able to invest in children like Caleb Perry, who attends the Heritage School in Newnan. As Caleb explains, “I feel I will be equipped with the skills to be a productive and contributing member of my community.”
Second, they want to empower parents who can hold schools accountable by having more choices for the education of their children.
Third, they support the accredited independent schools that, according to Dave Davies, headmaster of Deerfield-Windsor School in Albany, “have been able to provide excellent educational opportunities to more Georgia families and broaden the socio-economic background of their student bodies.”
Fourth, taxpayers appreciate the transparency and accountability of SSOs that are required to register with the Georgia Department of Education, file audited financial statements with the Georgia Department of Revenue, comply with DOR regulations and obligate at least 90 percent of their contributions for scholarships. Any director or officer of an SSO who actively participates in an SSO’s intentional violation of the law is guilty of a misdemeanor.
Finally, budget conscious taxpayers like the fact that the average value of scholarships awarded by most SSOs is less than the $4,699 average per pupil amount spent by the state on public school students.
The Georgia k-12 tuition tax- credit program provides the ultimate in accountability and transparency. Public schools must now compete against private schools for students, disclosing sufficient information upon which parents can rely in choosing where best to educate their children. Likewise, public schools must compete for the support of Georgia taxpayers, who will insist on effective school governance, fiscal responsibility and ethical assessments of academic achievement.
There is no silver bullet in solving America’s education crisis. However, the tuition tax credit program is hitting the mark. Legislators should use a scalpel to improve this program, resisting the offer of a hacksaw by long-time opponents of educational freedom.
(James P. Kelly is President of Solidarity Center for Law and Justice, and a Senior Fellow at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation. This article was originally published by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on its June 24 editorial page.)