By Jody Steinberg

A law enacted in Georgia this spring creates a mechanism to provide scholarships so families can opt out of public schools that don’t meet their needs and instead attend private schools in Sandy Springs, Buckhead and beyond.

“A lot of children are trapped in public schools that don’t work, and they can’t see a way out,” said state Rep. Edward Lindsey, a Buckhead Republican who serves on the House Education Committee and co-sponsored the Georgia Private School Tax Credit Law (H.B. 1133) in the spring.

Under that law, Georgia is the fifth state to offer a dollar-for-dollar tax credit for donations to student scholarship organizations (SSOs), which disburse the money to students who transfer from public to private schools. With prior approval from the Department of Revenue, taxpayers can earn credits up to $1,000 for individuals, $2,500 for couples and $10,000 for corporations until a statewide cap of $50 million is reached each year.

“It’s part of a package of bills designed to increase flexibility and control, to move beyond the educational model of ‘one style fits all’ to a system that gives parents and schools more flexibility — with accountability,” Lindsey said. The other laws in that package include H.B. 881, which established the Georgia Charter Schools Commission, and S.B.10, which provides private school tuition vouchers to students with disabilities whose needs are not being met in public school.

“It’s about educational justice,” said Jim Kelly, the director of the Georgia GOAL Scholarship Program, “a rescue mission to help low-income families escape poorly performing public schools.” Kelly, who has worked for educational choice for 20 years, receives up to 10 calls a day from desperate parents.

“It’s heartbreaking to hear these parents who don’t have options,” he said. “I can’t imagine waking up every day knowing that my child is not being adequately prepared to go to college and become gainfully employed, and there’s nothing I can do about it.”

SSOs emerge

According to the state Department of Education, eight SSOs are registered in Georgia. Half represent broad coalitions of religious schools and communities. GOAL, which is independent, was one of the first to be operational and has distributed about 100 scholarships to private schools.

GOAL receives two types of contributions: Designated donations benefit applicants from partner schools, and undesignated funds support children from low- and middle-income families who want to attend other accredited schools.

One of GOAL’s first partners was Torah Day School of Atlanta (TDSA). The school’s executive director, Rabbi David Kapenstein, a strong proponent of school choice, lobbied for H.B. 1133 with a coalition of education advocates. He began soliciting donors for the SSO and identifying families who needed the scholarships immediately.

“It’s the mission of TDSA not to turn away any child,” Kapenstein said. “This could make a huge difference in our ability to provide education for more students who couldn’t otherwise afford a private school education.” More than 70 percent of TDSA students receive tuition assistance, and the Toco Hills school has always relied on community support.

“People are responding. Some who might have given $100 a year are giving $2,500 because a gift to the SSO doesn’t cost them anything. They get a dollar-for-dollar tax credit from the state and a federal tax deduction. In some cases, donors can even come out ahead,” he said, adding that he is not a qualified accountant.

Don Sklar, who is a qualified certified public accountant, concurs.

“It’s almost a no-cost proposition, and it’s a great way to help students attain a better-quality education,” Sklar said. “The tax benefit covers most, if not all, of the cost. I’m doing it because I believe in educational choice.”

Budget impact feared

Critics of the new law worry that SSOs will further dilute school funds or add to Georgia’s revenue shortfall, which has prompted deep budget cuts across the state.

But the scholarship money does not come from public education funds, and tax credits such as those offered by H.B. 1133 are not at risk, said Alan Essig, the executive director of the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, which monitors state revenues, spending and policies.

Scholarships are a better investment than youth detention centers and prisons, said Kelly, who serves on the Board of Juvenile Justice. “There is a very steep economic price to pay for students who don’t receive adequate education. If you provide students with a supportive social and academic environment, you more than make up [tax dollars] on the front end.”

Some critics predict abuse of the program because the guidelines are vague. But most SSOs established scholarship standards aligned with the intent of the law.

“Why shouldn’t our tax dollars support children getting any education their parents choose? The intent is that the donations will be altruistic,” Kapenstein said. “Donors can choose the school, but they can’t choose the child.”

“The bill isn’t intended to give people a tax credit for sending their child to private schools,” Lindsey said. “It’s for students who don’t have other choices.”

“When parents are aware that their community schools are not adequately educating their children, they get disenfranchised,” Kelly said. “Providing for those voters — who have just as much right to a decent education as those who can afford it — is a very important step toward bringing justice to those families.”