Nationally, the movement to privatize public education through corporate reform has had varying degrees of success; these efforts have been well documented. Efforts to restructure the funding and management of Georgia’s public schools have had limited success but Public Education Matters Georgia is aware that the state is targeted for increased corporate reform efforts. To date, Georgia has enacted a private school tax credit scholarship program; special education vouchers; and a number of provisions allowing the formation of charter schools at the local and state level; as well as the proposed Opportunity School District that has yet to be voted upon the Georgia’s residents. The Georgia legislature has not approved other popular corporate reform measures, such as Education Savings Accounts and Parent Trigger bills.

 

Private School Tax Credit Scholarships

The Georgia Qualified Education Expense Tax Credit, also known as the Georgia Private School Tax Credit Scholarship program, was enacted in 2008. The law allows eligible private citizens and corporations to receive dollar-for-dollar tax credits for donations to Student Scholarship Organizations (SSOs). The SSOs then provide student scholarships to parents of eligible children who attend private schools.

The operation is quite simple: if you are an individual taxpayer who owes Georgia up to $1,000 in state taxes, a couple who owes Georgia up to $2,500, or a corporation that owes Georgia up to $10,000, you can choose to divert payment of that money to private organizations rather than paying the state. As a taxpayer, you receive a 100% dollar-for-dollar tax credit for the money you pay to the private organization. The private organizations, known as Student Scholarship Organizations, are largely unregulated and unchecked. The SSOs get to keep a percentage of the money for administrative costs; these consist largely of administrators’ salaries. At least one of these SSOs is headed by a Georgia State Legislator. In 2012, the Georgia Legislature was awarded the “Black Hole Award” from the Society of Professional Journalists for this program which is so unregulated that it was deemed a “heinous violation of the public’s right to know.”

The tax money that is contributed to SSOs is then paid out to the students that the SSOs select to receive the funding to attend the private schools associated with that SSO. The private schools do not provide transportation, free or reduced school lunches, or special education services. The private schools have no education standards that they must meet or report, and they are unaccountable for how they spend public tax funds. A majority of private schools in the state of Georgia are religious and many have policies that exclude gay students.

In 2014, the program had 13,216 participating students who were awarded scholarships by 21 different SSOs. The cap on the awards that an SSO could grant to each student is set by the average state and local expenditures per child for public elementary and secondary education in the entire state, and for 2014 – 2015 school year, that amount was $9,247. The average scholarship value awarded was $3,152.

During the 2013 legislative session, provisions were added to the program to provide a minimum amount of transparency. But the efforts are proving to be inadequate to hold such a large diversion of tax funds accountable. Since the program was enacted in 2008, taxpayers have diverted $300 million to private schools while the state has underfunded public schools by $5.5 million.  Currently, the program diverts $58 million from the state coffers each year.  Each year, the SSOs and private schools return to the Capitol to ask for an increase in the allowable total tax credits for the program.

It is possible that the Governor’s Education Reform Commission will recommend an increase in the tax credits allowed for the program. We will keep you updated on any recommendations and any legislation that is introduced.

RESOURCES

Southern Education Foundation’s Infographic on Tax Credit Scholarships, 2015.

Vouchers and Tax Credit Scholarships in the US video. Southern Education Foundation. (2015).

Don’t Expand Private School Scholarship Tax Credit Program until Effectiveness is Proven, Claire Suggs, Georgia Budget & Policy Institute (GBPI). March 2013.

Transparency for Private School Scholarships Improves, Claire Suggs, GBPI. March 2013.

Private School Scholarships to Divert $30 Million More in Revenue, Claire Suggs, GBPI. February 2013.

Tax Revisions Keep Georgia on the Wrong Path, Wesley Tharpe. May 2013.

What states have done, National Conference of State Legislatures. April 2014.

 

Vouchers for Special Education

School vouchers are taxpayer-funded dollars that families with special needs students can use to pay educational expenses for their children if they opt out of public schools. The Georgia Special Needs Scholarship Program, a school voucher program, was enacted in 2007 to enable families to receive and use the state funds provided for their student to pay for   programs that meet their child’s specific needs. Georgia is currently one of 15 states that has a voucher program that serves exclusively special needs students. The program is found in the Georgia Code and details of the program are available on the Georgia Department of Education website.

As explained on the Georgia DOE website, to qualify for a Special Needs Scholarship for the 2015-2016 school year, a student must meet all of the following criteria:

  1. A student have must a parent/guardian who currently lives in Georgia and has been a resident for at least one calendar year.
  2. A student must have been enrolled and completed the 2014 – 2015 school year in a Georgia public school in grades kindergarten through twelfth.
  3. A student must have been reported as attending a Georgia public school by a school district(s) during mandatory student counts conducted in October 2014 and March 2015.
  4. A student does not need to have an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) for the entire school year to qualify for the GSNS Program. A student must have received special education services at some point during the 2014 – 2015 school year through an IEP. A student must be reported by a school district(s) in either the October 2014 OR March 2014 student counts OR in final student records as a student receiving special education services by the end of the 2014 – 2015 school year.

If a student meets the eligibility criteria for the GSNS Program; a parent/guardian has the right to request a transfer from a student’s current public school to:

  • Another public school within their district of residence; or
  • Another public school district outside their district of residence; or
  • One of the three state schools for the blind or deaf; or
  • A private school authorized to participate in the GSNS Program. Funds received through the GSNS Program can only be used to pay for tuition and fees at a private school authorized by the State Board of Education to participate in the program.

Funds cannot be used to pay the costs of out of district tuition, charter schools, or other public school options.

Reviews of the Special Needs Scholarship Program as of 2014-2015 show the following: 11 percent of students statewide in Georgia were eligible to participate; 3,811 students in Georgia participated in the program; there were 236 private schools participating in the program; voucher awards ranged from $2,196 to $12,803 with the average award of $5,396 depending on the severity of the child’s disability; the average tuition at schools teaching children with special needs was $13,152; and the value as a percentage of public school per-student spending is 59%.

The language in the Special Needs Scholarship Program restricts its eligibility to special needs students, explicitly stating that nothing in the program shall be construed as a basis for granting vouchers or tuition tax credits for any other students, with or without disabilities. Attempts are made each year to expand the use of the Special Needs Scholarship Program to additional students. Thus far, those attempts have been unsuccessful, but we will keep you updated on the introduction and progress of any additional legislation.

 

Charter Schools

The State of Georgia passed the Charter Schools Act of 1998 and began allowing local school districts to approve charter schools to be run as public schools under local board authority.  The Act has been amended many times and now provides for a number of forms of charter schools, run under the authority of local school districts or a State Charter School Commission (GSCSC). In addition to providing for individual charter schools to be formed as start-up charters or conversion charters, the Act created Charter Systems. A Charter System is a local school system that is approved by the State Board of Education to operate its schools under a charter; all schools within that local school system are considered system charter schools, with a few exceptions. System charter schools do not operate under individual charters, they operate under the charter of the entire school system. With the passage of the School System Flexibility Act, a large number of schools in Georgia will become system charter schools, and the importance of this is explained under School District Governance Models.

In general, charter schools receive public funds but are not subject to all the rules and regulations that apply to other public schools. Rather, they are held accountable for producing academic results, which are laid out in a performance-based contract, or “charter.” As of the 2013-14 school year, there were 16 state charter schools operating, but 2 of those were shut down as of the end of that school year. Two other of the remaining state charter schools operate as one, leaving a total of 13 state charter schools in operation. Their performance was mixed when compared to non-charter public schools. During the 2014-15 school year, there were 116 local and state charter schools operating in the State of Georgia attended by 75,247 students.

While the requirements for greater accountability and transparency increase, charter schools are currently run with less information available to the public about their budgets, funding sources, student base, and performance than is required of traditional public schools. In Georgia, charter schools can be run by for-profit management companies. The state legislature is also constantly seeking ways to create additional charter schools and expand their access to local funds and local facilities. The proposed constitutional amendment to create the Opportunity School District is just the latest of those attempts.

We will keep you updated on legislation introduced concerning Charter Schools and what impact it will have on our public education system.

 

Corporate Reform Efforts That Have Failed in Georgia

In recent years, several pieces of legislation have been introduced in the state legislature to establish additional corporate reform programs in Georgia. These programs have, thus far, been defeated during the legislative session. 

Education Savings Accounts aka “Vouchers”

Introduced in the 2015 legislative session, the Education Savings Account bill is still pending in the House, having passed out of the House Ways and Means Committee of the state legislature, and could be considered again in the 2016 Session. As of June 2015, Education Savings Account legislation has been passed in five states (Arizona, Florida, Mississippi, Tennessee and Nevada). The legislation varies from state to state. 

As passed by the House Ways and Means Committee in the Georgia legislature, the Education Savings Account bill would have allowed parents to take the money the state allocates for their child’s public education, deposit it into an education savings account, and use these state dollars to pay for private educational services, tutoring, and instruction materials.  An earlier version would have covered more students and allowed parents to hold funds for use to pay college tuitions. The cost to the state of the earlier version of the bill was estimated by the Georgia Budget & Policy Institute to be more than $200 million by 2028. That version was substantially revised. Neither the original bill nor the revised version that passed from the House Ways and Means Committee included a fiscal note as required by Committee rules to show the bill’s potential impact on the budget. 

As GBPI’s analyses show, there are numerous flaws with the bill.  This proposal, or something like it may be recommended by the Governor’s Education Reform Commission, and/or may be considered again in the 2016 Session. We will provide updates on this legislation during the Session.

RESOURCES

Education Savings Accounts Carry Big Sticker Shock, Claire Suggs, GBPI. February 2015.

Education Savings Account Bill Less Costly, Still Needs Improvement, Claire Suggs, GBPI. March 2015.

States Weigh Turning Education Funds Over to Parents, by Stephanie Simonton, February 2015. 

Parent Trigger Legislation

During several recent sessions of the Georgia Legislature, bills were considered to allow parents to take over their children’s schools by majority vote and turn the schools into “conversion charter schools.” These pieces of legislation, known as “Parent Trigger” bills, have been defeated in the Georgia legislature each time introduced.

The bills are modeled after California’s Parent Empowerment Act of 2010, which enables parents to force one of five types of major reforms on a low-performing public school if a majority of parents sign a petition seeking the change. The reform options range from firing the principal and staff of the school to turning the entire school over to a charter operator. Since 2010, at least 25 states have considered parent trigger legislation, and seven have enacted some version (California, Connecticut, Indiana, Louisiana, Mississippi, Ohio and Texas). Parent trigger legislation has been introduced in Tennessee this year, and amendments to the California and Texas bills would expand the programs considerably.

In Georgia, Parent Trigger legislation may be largely duplicative of already existing provisions in the code that allow for creation of “conversion charter schools;” (learn more above in "Charter Schools" section) programs that allow the Georgia Department of Education to work with local districts to implement reforms to assist low-performing schools; and the efforts by the Governor to pass the state school take-over plan, see the Opportunity School District.

Parent and Teacher Empowerment Act, HB 123 was the most recent parent trigger bill introduced in Georgia, 2014.

RESOURCES

Parent Trigger Showdowns Loom Nationwide, Natasha Lindstrom. March 2015