Georgia lawmakers seem determined to subsidize private schools with public dollars. Witness several bills in the 2018 General Assembly to create or expand schemes to shift public dollars to private schools. It’s better to provide public schools the resources needed to ensure all students reach the state’s ambitious learning goals before lawmakers consider these bills. Lawmakers are shortchanging students in districts across Georgia, while shifting significant costs to local taxpayers. School districts are on the hook to fill these gaps with local funds.
Two pending bills to expand public support for private schools stand a good chance of becoming law. Their combined annual price could reach $45 million.
- House Bill 664 proposes to raise the annual cap on deductible contributions to 529 savings plans to $8,000 from $4,000 per student for joint income tax filers and to $4,000 from $2,000 for all others. Originally designed to encourage families to save for college, 529 funds can now be used to pay tuition at private K-12 schools due to changes in federal law. Parents can contribute to a 529 plan and promptly withdraw the money to pay private school tuition. The bill cleared the House and is now in the hands of the Senate Finance Committee, which can send it to the full Senate for consideration. Cost: Up to $3 million annually
- House Bill 217 proposes to raise the annual limit on tax credits for contributions to student scholarship organizations to between $65 million and $100 million from the current cap of $58 million. The tax credit voucher program has yet to be evaluated. Very little data is available about participating students and no information is available about participating schools or program quality. In the 2017 legislative session, the House approved lifting the cap to $100 million from $58 million. The Senate countered with an increase to $65 million. Lawmakers ran out of time to settle their differences last year before the Legislature adjourned. Now, a committee of three legislators from each chamber is working on a compromise amount. Cost: Up to $42 million annually
A third scheme to use public money for private schools, House Bill 482, proposes an Education Savings Account program. That’s an expanded voucher system that allows parents to direct public school dollars to private schools or educational service providers. The proposal got soundly defeated by a 102 to 60 House vote last week, which means it won’t pass in its current form this session. However, lawmakers can add it to a different bill and still win approval this year. If that happens, could the cost might reach $69 million by the fourth year.
Even as legislators push for new ways to transfer public money to private schools, they are not appropriating all the money school districts are due as calculated by the state’s own K-12 funding formula. They are sending them $167 million less than called for in the current school year and are poised to shortchange public schools again in the 2018-2019 school year. To be sure, this is an improvement over 2010 to 2014 when the lawmakers cut $1 billion each year in the wake of the recession. But it still leaves districts stretched to cover the basics.
Lawmakers are also shorting the student transportation formula $177 million this year and are set to do it again next year. In addition, lawmakers reduced funding for bus replacement over the last 20 years, which translates to nearly 3,700 buses 15 years or older on the roads. No money is proposed for bus replacement in Georgia’s 2019 budget.
In 2012, the Legislature eliminated state funding for health insurance for custodians, bus drivers and other non-teaching staff, pushing all of this expense onto school systems. Local school districts now spend $430 million more a year to cover this cost.
These financial pressures squeeze school system budgets, making it hard for educators to meet students’ needs. That’s especially true for low-income students who often need extra support. Rural districts with limited ability to raise local revenue and few community resources often face the greatest financial pressures created by state funding shortfalls.
More than 1.7 million public school students in Georgia depend on state funding to help pay for a quality education. They are the state’s future workforce, its engaged citizens, and its leaders. Investing in these young people should be lawmakers’ top priority, not diverting public funds to private schools.