My county’s DFCS office is now open just three days a week.
Sorry, the state says, we don’t have the money to keep the office that serves needy families and protects the elderly and children from abuse open for a full work week. Our hands are tied by the budget.
My county’s school system has had $3.2 million in “austerity cuts” from the state in the last four years. That’s the equivalent of 12 mills here.
Sorry, but we just don’t have the money in the state coffers to fund poor, rural school systems like we used to.
State funding for paving roads, infrastructure improvements, and public safety has also dried up in recent years for counties across the state.
Safety, schmafety. Local taxpayers need to pick up the tab. The state doesn’t have the money anymore.
Scholarships for private school students?
Sure, the state says. We’ve got money for that.
Georgia’s state legislature is currently considering House Bill 140, which would raise the annual cap for tax credits that go to student scholarship organizations (SSOs). Currently, Georgia law allows for $51.5 million a year to be claimed under this program. HB 140 proposes making the annual cap $80 million.
In 2008, our state legislature passed House Bill 1133, which created the SSOs. Under this law, individuals and corporations can make donations to an SSO and receive a dollar-for-dollar tax credit. The SSO then provides scholarships to private schools for students previously “enrolled” in public schools. Since the law was enacted, more than $170 million in Georgia tax dollars have been set aside for this purpose. That means, $170 million that would have been in state tax coffers has been diverted for these private school scholarships.
When the original law was proposed, it was sold as a way for poor children to escape underperforming public schools. Has that happened since the legislation became law?
Uh, no. Or maybe.
See, these scholarships have no transparency or accountability – no public documentation of who is receiving the scholarships, if they come from low-income homes, how the scholarship money is spent, if they put all that money in a bonfire and set if aflame – nothing.
Then, there’s the reason I put “enrolled” inside quotation marks.
According to a story in the New York Times, published in May, the legislation uses the term “enroll” instead of “attend” as an intentional loophole, where private school parents can “enroll” their children in a public school (but not attend) to be eligible for the scholarship.
“I’m telling you, we deliberately put the wording in there for that,” said a state legislator, Rep. David Casas, in remarks caught on YouTube.
Oh, by the way, Rep. Casas is a co-sponsor of HB 140.
There have also been complaints of private schools using the scholarships as a slush fund to recruit star public school athletes to private schools.
HB 140 would further change the requirements for a private school scholarship by dropping the “enrollment” wording in favor of having it apply to all students “eligible to enroll” in a public school. Meaning, all current private school students would be eligible.
In a nutshell, this is a scam.
The $80 million a year (or $170 million for that matter) these legislators want to spend on these private school scholarships could be spent on clearing the waiting list for little kids wanting to attend Pre-K. It could be used to supply more public safety officers for our schools. It could be used to properly fund our public schools, of which 90 percent of our state’s school-age children attend. It could be used to keep our DFCS offices open five days a week. You know, the Department of Family and Children Services – the agency that investigates claims of sexual and physical abuse of children. It literally could be used for a million things more vital to our state and its citizenry.
What kind of people are we, what kind of state do we live in, where we can find state funding for a corrupt private school scholarship program and not for protecting the most vulnerable of our citizens?
I understand the budget process is complicated, and that it’s not as easy as trading one pot of money for another. What I don’t understand is how good people can support such a measure that affects so few when there are more dire needs that affect so many.
I’m contacting my state legislators about HB 140, and I hope you will as well. You can find contact information for them online at www.legis.ga.gov.
Poor children – the most obvious victims of these shenanigans – don’t make campaign contributions. You are their only voice. Please utilize it.
© Len Robbins 2013