Why should Georgia divert more taxpayer money to support private school scholarships when the public has no idea if the state gets a good return on the existing $50 million worth of tax breaks it devotes to the program?
That’s a question lawmakers should answer before approving Senate Bill 243, a proposal to raise the cap on the private school scholarship tax credit program to $65 million from $50 million. The Georgia House is considering the plan and could move it forward this session.
We don’t have evidence that shows students who receive a private school scholarship learn more and reach higher levels of achievement in private schools than in public schools. We don’t know if they are more likely to transition smoothly from one grade to the next or have fewer disciplinary problems. We don’t know if they are more likely to graduate from high school on time and go on to college than if they had stayed in a public school.
In short, we don’t know what’s happening to these students. We don’t even know anything about the students themselves, including how many actually attended a public school or how many are economically disadvantaged.
The lack of information is a result of the program’s design that prevents the public from knowing who is getting the scholarship and how they are performing in school. The proposal to expand the program would add some new transparency, requiring reports of some demographic information that sorts students by income group.
But this modest improvement falls far short of providing the data needed to evaluate the return taxpayers are getting in exchange for diverting scarce resources.
Without knowing this trade-off, expanding the tax credit is unsound fiscal policy. It’s also bad education policy. It would take $15 million that could pay for state services and give it to private schools. In many schools and districts across Georgia, some of that $15 million would make a big difference.
There are three school districts in the state—Baker, Quitman and Warren counties—where all public school students are poor and qualify for the free and reduced price meal program. For this school year, the state is underfunding those districts by $879,000 under the Quality Basic Education (QBE) formula. There are another eight school districts where between 97 and 87 percent of students are low-income. The state is underfunding these districts by approximately $4.1 million. For $5 million then, the state could provide full funding under the QBE program to these districts. If it did, these districts wouldn’t have to furlough teachers or cut the number of days students are in school. The districts might even be able to lower class sizes.
Students and their teachers are trying to make do with dwindling funds in public schools across the state. Diverting critical potential tax revenue to the unproven private school scholarship tax credit program makes their task harder. It’s not good fiscal policy or education policy, and it’s not what Georgia needs right now.