In its countdown mode, the Legislature advanced several education bills Monday, although few will likely engender meaningful reform. The General Assembly's machinations tend to tweak at the edges, impose more reporting requirements and create new bureaucracy.
House Bill 338 does the latter; the OSD Lite bill passed out of Senate Education and Youth Committee largely intact but still with no new money to accompany the new chief turnaround officer when she or he shows up to help struggling schools.
Almost all the schools on the state failing list – a list that will now under a Senate change be defined by a state Department of Education scale rather than the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement – are struggling because their students are poor and there aren't enough resources to meet their many needs.
Among other Senate changes to HB 338:
•A targeted school has more time to show improvement before drastic state interventions kick in. Under the House version, the state could hand low performers to nonprofit managers or convert them to charter schools after two years, but the bill now requires three years.
•The legislation clearly bans for-profit companies from taking over any schools that the state eventually controls.
What did not change and should have: The new position of chief turnaround officer still reports to the state board of education, which is appointed by the governor.
Elected state School Superintendent Richard Woods argued it make more sense for the CTO to answer to him -- it does – but politics trumped logic. The outsider status of the CTO may increase her or his autonomy, but it also causes a gulf between the CTO and the resources of DOE that could help schools. And the CTO will need to tap DOE expertise as there's not a lot of cash to hire others, although a proposed tax credit could pump a few million into turnaround efforts.
The Senate version also clarifies that school districts, after creating a "turnaround plan" with the chief turnaround officer, must pay for implementation, unless they can demonstrate financial need. The legislation is silent on where money would come from to help districts, but Tanner said Deal is committed to funding the measure. Also, a separate bill establishing a tax credit program for public school "innovation" grants, House Bill 237, passed out of the Senate Finance Committee Monday on a 7-6 vote. It was amended to an annual cap of $5 million, down from the $7 million in the original bill, and set to end after three years.
At the same time, it reduced the tax credit cap for public schools, the Senate endorsed an increase in the existing tax credit for private school scholarships, from a cap of $58 million a year to $65 million in the latest version of House Bill 217.
The tax credits have helped thousands of children attend private schools -- 13,555 in 2015 alone, and in recent years the maximum contribution level has been reached on the first day of availability. But there are nearly 1.8 million public school students in Georgia, and critics of the tax credits say they divert money available for other government spending, such as support of public schools. Schools get $166 million less than they should under the state education funding formula.
Some also criticize the level of transparency with the program and even its legality. Georgia taxpayers sued in Fulton County Superior Court in 2014, alleging it is unconstitutional to spend state tax dollars on the program because some schools that receive money are religious, in apparent violation of the constitutional mandate for the separation of church and state. The Georgia Supreme Court heard arguments in January and is expected to issue a decision sometime this year.
One member of the Senate Finance Committee told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that he thinks the program is unconstitutional, and a majority of senators at Monday’s hearing had another concern: the amount of the fees kept by the private organizations that administer it.
Taxpayers pledge money — up to $1,000 for an individual, $2,500 per married couple and $10,000 for shareholders or owners of businesses (except “C” corporations, which can contribute up to three-quarters of their state tax debt) — to specific private schools and get a tax credit for the amount. The money passes through nonprofit scholarship organizations, which assign it to students. These organizations can keep up to 10 percent as fees. “This room wouldn’t be full if people weren’t making money,” said Sen. Renee Unterman, R-Buford, at Monday’s packed hearing. “There are people making money off of this.”