The Georgia Senate is considering a plan to expand the state’s private school scholarship tax credit program after the House recently approved House Bill 217. The bill proposes to raise the annual cap on tax credits from $58 million to $100 million for donations to organizations issuing the scholarships. Its potential fiscal impact is cause for concern but a greater one is its effect on student learning. The program is a variation on traditional school vouchers, which are private school scholarships funded directly by the state. Vouchers lack a good student achievement track record and the public knows nothing about how Georgia students are faring academically in the private school scholarship program now.

Something we do know: Vouchers aren’t bringing big benefits to students in Louisiana, Ohio and Indiana. In Louisiana, voucher students fell well behind their peers in public schools in math and reading in their first year in the program. Voucher students in Ohio also saw a drop in achievement when they switched to private schools. Math scores dropped significantly for Indiana’s voucher students when they transferred to private schools and they made no gains in English Language Arts.

Voucher programs in other states delivered mixed results at best. Some yielded small gains for some students but no gains or even declines for others. Where learning does improve for voucher students, it is often unclear whether that is a result attributable to a private school, or other factors such as instituting participation in state tests and other stronger accountability measures for voucher programs.

These findings should give Georgia’s lawmakers reason to pause long enough to require a comprehensive external evaluation of the scholarship tax credit program before they expand it. Such an evaluation was never done and the public can access little information on participating students including none on their:

  • Demographics including race and gender
  • Home county
  • School district they left and the length of time they attended school in that district
  • Private school attended
  • Grade level or other group designation, such as gifted, remedial or special education under the K-12 funding formula at the time they first got a scholarship
  • Length of time they received a scholarship
  • Achievement level in public school and private school
  • Average scholarship amount by grade level

Collecting this information and carefully analyzing it can help lawmakers, educators, parents and the general public determine if expanding the program is a sound educational and fiscal policy to pursue.

Vouchers are often touted as a tool to expand choice and improve student outcomes but there are other strategies for that. Lawmakers can facilitate much greater choice within and between school districts by increasing funding for student transportation. The state is now funding only 18 percent of districts’ transportation operating costs, leaving them strapped to cover basic busing costs. And if they want to improve outcomes for students in high-poverty, low-performing schools, lawmakers can provide direct funding for House Bill 338, a school reform initiative also approved by the House and now under review in the state senate. These are better strategies for lawmakers to pursue now than expanding the opaque private school scholarship tax credit program.

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Claire Suggs
Claire joined GBPI in 2012 as a senior education policy analyst. Her research focuses on education finance and school reform issues related to early childhood education, K-12 education, and higher education in Georgia. Claire holds a master’s in public affairs from LaFollette School of Public Affairs at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a bachelor’s in English and History from the University of Michigan. Claire has begun work on her doctorate in education policy at the University of Georgia, College of Education.

1 COMMENT

  1. If the figure I heard is correct, 40% of our legislators send their kids to private school. Also, if the levels are raised, private schools don’t have to accept any new students just your tax-owed state money. Remember, too that in Georgia 10% of the scholarship money collected can stay with the collector and there is nothing in the current law that earmarks any of this scholarship money (as it does in Florida) for kids from low socio-economic areas looking to change schools. So far the research indicates that the 25% from low socio-economic backgrounds are the least likely to be affected and the top 25% the most likely.

    But hey, if we can use tax monies to repair luxury boats worth more than 500k, why the hell not?

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