October 29, 2018 10:00 AM
This week’s Courier Herald column:
The issue at hand that most directly led to the matchup at the top of Georgia’s ballot next week is education. Specifically, it is the funding through tax credits of Georgia’s Student Scholarship Organizations (SSOs) and two former candidates’ actions.
Clay Tippins, a political newcomer who ran in Georgia’s Republican primary for Governor, taped Lt. Governor Casey Cagle in a conversation over Cagle’s support to expand the maximum amount that can be donated to SSOs in Georgia per year. The backlash seemed to freeze the Cagle team while Kemp used the vacuum to consolidate support during the runoff, with President Trump’s endorsement sealing the deal for Kemp’s nomination.
Little has been said from the Republican side about SSO’s since, though supporters of various school choice programs have largely aligned behind Kemp. That’s largely because Democratic Nominee Abrams isn’t exactly a fan of school choice.
In fact, Abrams has a long history of opposing any sort of school choice. She opposed the Georgia Special Needs Scholarship program, which now allows 4,500 students with special needs to attend a school that better works for them through a voucher worth up to the cost of the educational program that a student would have received in public school. Abrams has been a consistent voice in opposition to charter schools and has voted against nearly every charter school bill. in fact, during this campaign for Governor, she’s noted her opposition to the State Charter School Commission and the charter amendment in 2012. When the Georgia Charter Schools Association sent out a questionnaire to all Governor, Lieutenant Governor and School Superintendent candidates, Abrams is the only nominee to decline to publicly state her position on public charter schools.
When it comes to the popular Student Scholarship Program, Abrams message is blunt. She has pledged to eliminate the program. She claims they divert public funds to vouchers to attend private schools.
Yes, but no. There’s a lot more to this story, and the math is in the state’s, the local school districts’, the parents’, and the taxpayers’ favor.
SSO’s are funded through donations for which individuals and corporations receive a full credit against their state income taxes for their donations. These funds then provide scholarships for students to attend private schools, with an average scholarship in the range of $4,000.
Abrams and critics want you to see the $4,000 as money taken from public schools. They would prefer that you not also think about the average per pupil spending in a Georgia Public School is north of $9,500. No money for SSOs is deducted from either local tax revenues paid by property taxes or E-SPLOSTs. All of that money remains in the local system, which is then divided by even fewer students.
That means more tax dollars per student for those that remain in the public schools. A recent non-partisan study of Florida’s similar system estimates that the state saved about $1.49 for every dollar donated to a Student Scholarship Organization.
Most of the private schools involved offer tuition assistance and additional scholarships to low income students. The money donated to SSO’s is often leveraged with other funds to provide a free or ultra-low cost education alternative to families whose alternative is to remain trapped in a failing school.
Opponents also would have you believe that these scholarships are sending privileged kids to elite schools that would be attending private schools anyway. The reality is that the vast majority of scholarship recipients are low or middle income. For the dollars involved are more suited to schools like Atlanta’s Christo Rey – a Jesuit school with a student body comprised with 96% students of color and has an average family income of $35,000. Because of the Student Scholarship Program and their financial aid model, it only costs the student’s family between $350 to $2,500 per year.
Currently, over 14,000 Georgia students are using these Student Scholarships to escape a school that didn’t meet their needs but would be their only education alternative were it not for this tax credit program. Stacey Abrams pledges to end this program, take away this option, and return these students to schools that are failing, where the student was being bullied, or that simply didn’t work for them.
The decision to focus exclusively on a bureaucracy-centered education model is not what is best for taxpayers. It’s certainly not what is best for a family when they are told their “free” public education is only available at a substandard school down the street.