Giving students options is already working in Georgia. But the need is greater.

You’ve heard the arguments against creating Promise Scholarships in Georgia. Three of the most stubborn are these: Only the “rich” will benefit; public schools will suffer; and rural students don’t have options.

Never mind the internal contradictions here. For example, if rural students don’t have options beyond their traditional public schools, then how will those schools suffer? There’s nowhere else for those students to go … right?

Unfortunately, logic holds no sway over opponents of empowering families. Happily, reality is here to trample their long-held beliefs. That’s because we already have an educational option that undercuts these and other scare stories that opponents trot out.

I’m talking about the state’s tax-credit scholarship program. Created in 2008, it allows any student, of any income level, to leave any public school, regardless of the school’s location or academic performance, and attend a private school using a scholarship funded by state tax credits. The only limitation is the amount of tax credits, which are capped at $120 million per year. 

Let’s take three common objections in turn and examine the evidence.

“Only the ‘rich’ will benefit”

Starting in 2019, the privately run student scholarship organizations (or SSOs) that administer this program have reported information about their recipients in relation to the federal poverty level. (Previously, they reported according to income quartiles, which unlike the poverty level don’t take family size into account.)

Every year, about two-thirds of scholarship recipients come from families earning less than 2.5 times the poverty level. For a family of four this year, that’s $78,000. The largest group each year earns no more than half that amount. We aren’t talking about wealthy folks.

How can this be? For starters, not every private school costs tens of thousands of dollars; the median price of tuition at Georgia private schools is closer to $9,000. Some of these families benefit from other scholarships and grants, and many of them scrimp and save to pay part of their own way.

The SSOs also provide another part of the answer: Most of them award larger amounts to lower-income families. In 2022, the latest year for which data are available, students in the lowest of the four income groups got an average of $4,730, compared to $3,660 for those in the highest of the groups.

“Public schools will suffer”

Opponents of options claim school systems will be bled dry if money follows the child to other educational settings. So, it’s instructive to look at what has happened since 2018. That was the first time in more than a decade that the state’s public schools were fully funded per the QBE formula. It’s also the year legislators voted to increase the tax-credit scholarship cap to $120 million from the previous $58 million.

In 2018, state funding per pupil for public schools was $5,427. The average SSO award was $4,008.

In 2022, state funding per pupil for public schools was more than 16% higher, at $6,306. The average SSO award grew about half as fast, to only $4,356.

Bottom line, public schools finances are thriving alongside this program.

“Rural students don’t have options”

In 2022, for the first time, SSOs were required to report how many students they served by county. For all the harrumphing about how only metro areas have private schools, students received tax-credit scholarships in 151 of Georgia’s 159 counties.

The only exceptions were Charlton, Chattahoochee, Clay, Dade, Echols, Hart, Quitman and Stewart counties. All eight are considered rural, but so are 112 counties that did have scholarship recipients. Some rural counties had as few as a handful of scholarship students, but these aren’t mere statistics: They represent real children who are getting the education they need and deserve.

Giving students options is already working in Georgia. But the need is greater than this one program. It should be expanded with a significant raise in the tax-credit cap, and it should be complemented by Promise Scholarships.

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