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.