Tax Credit Scholarships Reignite Voucher Debate Several states have embraced a new way to fund school choice: tax credits that pay for scholarships to private schools. The scholarships are popular with school choice advocates, but even some supporters say the program may be open to abuse.
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Tax Credit Scholarships Reignite Voucher Debate

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Tax Credit Scholarships Reignite Voucher Debate

Tax Credit Scholarships Reignite Voucher Debate

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And speaking of affordability, we turn now to Georgia and a debate over scholarships to private elementary and secondary schools. Georgia is one of several states that give businesses and individuals tax credits if they contribute to the scholarship programs. This approach is popular with school choice advocates.

But as NPR's Greg Allen reports, even some supporters of the scholarships in Georgia say they're being abused.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Like any mom, Donna Neal worries about her kids. Her 7-year-old son, Garrett, is small for his age and has been diagnosed with attention deficit disorder. For her family, the small class size and attention Garrett received last year, his first year at Trinity Chapel Academy, was a godsend.

DONNA NEAL: We wanted a good environment, a loving environment. And here at Trinity Chapel, they have good discipline, but they also, you know, they love on the kids while they discipline them. He actually thrived. He loved it.

ALLEN: Neal says the only way she and her husband are able to send Garrett to Trinity Chapel is because of Georgia's tax credit scholarships. The Neals pay a small percentage, but the majority of Garrett's $6,800 tuition bill is provided by a scholarship fund. Businesses and individuals pay into the fund, which directs the money to private schools.

The program was created by Georgia's legislature four years ago as a way to provide options for children for whom the public schools are failing. In Georgia, about three quarters of the private schools taking part in the program are religious.

For Donna Neal, the religion classes at Trinity Chapel Academy are part of the appeal.

NEAL: I love that. Garrett last year had a Bible verse to learn every week. They teach him, you know, to help others and to pray over others. I firmly believe that this is the place that God has chosen for Garrett to be here.

ALLEN: Georgia's not the only state using tax credits to fund private education. It's an idea that began in Arizona and has been picked up by several other states. In Georgia, when it was proposed, it was sold as a way to help poor kids. But when the bill creating it was signed into law, it didn't include provisions making the scholarships need-based.

And although it was presented as an option for kids not thriving in public schools, the law allows students currently in private schools to qualify for a scholarship simply by enrolling but not actually attending a public school.

Steve Suitts is with the Southern Education Foundation, an Atlanta-based group that's strongly critical of the tax credit scholarships.

STEVE SUITTS: What is being done today is, in fact, a backdoor way in which to try to subsidize private schooling, not only for kids who are now in the public schools, but for kids who are already in the private schools. And it's a backdoor method of a voucher.

ALLEN: Even some groups involved with helping craft Georgia's tax credit scholarships concede the program may be open to abuses. Jamie Lord is with a school choice group Center for an Educated Georgia. She's read a Southern Education Foundation report on the program and agrees with at least one main point.

JAMIE LORD: There definitely is a lack of transparency perhaps in the program. I think what we can't draw from that report is that the program in a failure. What we can draw from it is that we don't know enough to say one way or another. And I think a lot of people would support having more information.

ALLEN: In Georgia, however, the trend is in the other direction. Last year, the main sponsor of the tax credit scholarships, State Representative Earl Ehrhart, took to the House floor in support of a bill that made some changes to the program.

STATE REPRESENTATIVE EARL EHRHART: These revisions are transparencies, efficiencies, data reporting and penalties for bad behavior. Ladies and gentlemen, that is all it does.

ALLEN: Ehrhart didn't return calls for this story, but critics say the main impact of his revisions was to make it a crime to publicly disclose any information about the program, including who benefits from it.

ALBERT LABOY: This main building, this is where we have kindergarten through the eighth grade.

ALLEN: Albert LaBoy is the headmaster at Trinity Chapel Academy in the rural part of Cobb County, northwest of Atlanta. He calls it a working man's private school, one with fewer than 300 students, where a few dozen are attending on tax credit scholarships. LaBoy says at his school, all the scholarships are need-based.

Trinity Chapel accepts all faiths, but the curriculum does include religious instruction. Critics object, saying it amounts to using state money for religious education. LaBoy doesn't see that as a problem.

LABOY: I'm a taxpayer. You know, I pay taxes that fund public schools, you know? It's nice that my state says, hey, we'll give you an opportunity to decide how a portion of your hard-earned tax dollars are being spent.

ALLEN: According to the Southern Education Foundation, many of the religious schools that take part in the scholarship program require students to make a profession of faith. The foundation's Steve Suitts says even more troubling to him is that many of these schools also discriminate against gays and lesbians.

SUITTS: That is not unlawful in Georgia. It doesn't mean it isn't wrong. The fact is this is saying that we are allowing public financing of schools to decide who to admit, who to expel, who to condemn, who to vilify on the basis of who they are.

ALLEN: Whether a child attends a religious school or one that teaches beliefs and values that may be controversial, Derek Monjure believes, is beside the point. Monjure runs a scholarship group, Arete Scholars Fund, that relies almost exclusively on corporate support and which targets all of its aid to needy kids. What's in a school's curriculum, he believes, is ultimately a question not for the government, but for the parents.

DEREK MONJURE: A number of these private schools are doing excellent work. These kids that I know that we've helped that would have no opportunity otherwise are going to college. They're coming out of public housing and possibly going to break those cycles of poverty. And I don't know who could disagree with that.

ALLEN: Unlike previous voucher programs, the tax credit scholarships so far have stood up to court scrutiny. Last year, the Supreme Court upheld Arizona's tax credit scholarship law. In Georgia, critics believe the scholarships may violate the state's constitutional ban on using public money for religious activities, but so far no challenges have been filed. Greg Allen, NPR news.



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