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Let’s blow the lid off Georgia’s scholarship program

Create a state program. Watch it achieve not only strong popularity, but cost savings as well. And then put a suffocating lid on it.

For years, that’s been the bittersweet story of Georgia’s tax-credit scholarships, which allow donors to approved scholarship organizations (known as SSOs) to claim a dollar-for-dollar credit against their state income taxes. More than 13,500 students receive scholarships funded by these private gifts, almost certainly saving the state millions of dollars per year, yet the amount of tax credits the state makes available hasn’t budged. But the wait may finally be over.

A pair of House bills would each raise the annual cap from the current $58 million to $150 million, and even higher in the future. The sponsors are a pair of Cobb County Republicans, John Carson and Sam Teasley, whose constituents wouldn’t necessarily benefit but who understand the need is great outside their districts.

“We recognize the students in our communities frankly are offered very good choices,” says Teasley. “At the same time, I don’t believe in one-size-fits-all, either. One size may fit most, but not all. I want parents to have additional options if they feel the school doesn’t fit their needs, for whatever reason, and not be limited by their income. These scholarships make it possible for them to exercise that choice.”

The reasons parents might want a different option, Carson notes, range from their children’s special needs, to exposure to illegal drugs, and more.

“I literally have emails from parents whose kids are bullied because their father serves in law enforcement,” says Carson. “I have emails from parents who say this program has caught their son or daughter up, because they were doing poorly in math – in two years, it’s caught them up four grade levels in math.

“This is what parents want, this is what students want, this is in the best interest of the state, and frankly the average scholarship awarded is less than the state contributes per pupil.”

A variety of factors have conspired to stunt the program’s growth. Some SSOs have conflicting opinions about how the program should expand. The education establishment claims the program takes money away from public schools. (In fact, the scholarships cost about $1,000 to $1,400 less than the state’s average per-pupil expenditure, so funding per student would actually fall if the tax credits — and those 13,500 students — were shifted to public schools.).

There has also been talk about reducing the credit below that dollar-for-dollar match, but Carson and Teasley offer several reasons why their bills keep the match at 100 percent. No state with a 100 percent match has ever lowered it. Pennsylvania’s program, which has lower match levels, failed to attract more donors (and thus generate more scholarship money) even after the cap was raised by two-thirds. And a similar program here in Georgia designed to raise money for rural hospitals has been very slow to gain traction, in largest part because it offers only a 70 percent match.

“In order to impact kids’ lives, and provide these scholarship opportunities, we really need to maintain dollar-for-dollar on the credit,” Carson says. “The parents want it, the kids want it, and it costs less money. Why would we not do it?”

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