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Why grow a bad program?

Betsy DeVos, our newly confirmed U.S. Secretary of Education, is an ardent, lifelong advocate of voucher programs that take taxpayers’ money out of public schools and use it instead for private school tuition.

We don’t know yet how that support will translate into federal policy, but voucher advocates here in Georgia aren’t waiting to find out. Under bills introduced by two Marietta Republicans, funding for Georgia’s Qualified Education Expense Tax Credit — basically, a poorly disguised voucher program — would be almost tripled, to more than $150 million a year.

Under the program, individuals and corporations that owe taxes to the state are instead allowed to contribute a like amount to private-school scholarship programs. If you donate $10,000 to a “student scholarship organization” for tuition, for example, that’s $10,000 that you don’t have to pay to the state.

Advocates defend that diversion of tax revenue with a familiar argument, claiming that those scholarships give poverty-stricken students an escape route out of failing schools.The truth is that’s not how they work. While states such as Florida do limit such scholarships to students who need financial help, Georgia legislators consistently refuse to adopt that safeguard.

As a result, state data tell us, families from the poorest 25 percent of Georgia households are the least likely economic group to benefit from those scholarships. A substantial majority of those scholarships go instead to households with above-average or upper income. By design — not by accident, but by design — the program serves largely as a sham through which upper-middle-class students get their private-school tuition subsidized by the taxpayers in the name of helping the poor, while the poor themselves get comparatively little help.

Then there’s the lack of accountability, both financial and educational.

Under Georgia law, scholarship organizations can pocket up to 10 percent of what they raise in contributions, which is much higher than in states with similar programs. In Florida, for example, overhead costs have a legal ceiling of 3 percent. So millions of Georgia tax dollars that ought to be going to schools are instead lining the pockets of organization administrators, and for no discernible reason. Tripling the amount of tax credits available would mean a financial bonanza for those groups.

State law also imposes an immense bureaucratic burden on public school teachers and administrators, not to mention high-stakes standardized testing on students. Huge amounts of time and energy better spent on students are consumed in meeting those bureaucratic demands. You know what the state requires of private schools that get tax-subsidized voucher money?

Nothing. We don’t know their graduation rates, their standardized test scores, their curriculum, nothing, and without that data we also have no way of comparing their educational outcomes to those of public school students. Again, that’s not by accident. That’s by conscious design. And if you set up a system in which every failure in the public-school system is fodder for headlines, while the failures of publicly funded but privately run schools are kept secret, public school advocates have every right to wonder whether they are being set up for failure.

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