Proposals to create school voucher programs, including tax credit scholarship programs, continue to pop up in a growing number of states and at the federal level. This has spurred some voucher proponents to call for greater accountability for schools participating in these programs. This would be a welcome change in Georgia. The state’s tax credit scholarship program operates with none of the accountability for student learning required of public schools.
Schools that participate in the state’s tax credit scholarship program are exempt from scrutiny. Current law does not require even basic information about the program to be collected and shared, including:
- Which private schools participate
- Resident school districts of participating students
- Grade level of students at entry into the program and category as applicable (e.g. special education, gifted, English language learner)
- Percentage of students entering the program under each admission category
- Percentage of low-income students as identified by their participation in the federal free and reduced lunch program
- Percentage of students by race and ethnicity
- Length of time low-income and non-low-income students are in the program
- Student performance reported by school, income level, race, and length of time in program
- Student performance compared to performance in public schools
This lack of information is a stark contrast to the copious data available about public schools and students in Georgia. Students participate in the Georgia Milestones assessments in third through eighth grade and at the end of their high school courses. Each year, schools and districts are rated based on students’ scores on these assessments under the state’s accountability system, which the Georgia Department of Education oversees. The Governor’s Office of Student Achievement also grades schools annually, and it provides a wide array of additional data that includes SAT scores, percentage of high school graduates eligible for the HOPE Scholarship and extensive financial data.
These data are gathered and disseminated so parents, educators, community and business leaders, legislators and other stakeholders can determine if students are gaining the knowledge and skills they need to move on to postsecondary study or enter the workforce. This question cannot be answered for the students in the state’s tax credit scholarship program, but it should be. Voucher programs in other states do not have a good track record when it comes to student learning.
Proponents of Georgia’s tax credit scholarship program cite the speed with which tax credits are claimed as evidence of the program’s success. This shows tax credits are popular, not that participating students are learning more.
Almost every year, Georgia’s legislators consider proposals to expand the existing tax credit scholarship program, add a new one or establish another form of vouchers such as an Education Savings Account. Before they approve any of these, they should first evaluate the current program to answer the question that matters most: Is it helping students learn more? Right now we just don’t know.