Georgia Scholarship Program Off and Running

Published November 1, 2008

Students in Georgia will have more opportunities for school choice thanks to the state’s new Tuition Tax Credit program, which was signed into law in May—but fewer than 100 have received the scholarships so far.

School choice advocates in Georgia envision the program providing scholarships for more than 12,000 students within its first few years. But the program had a modest start this autumn because of a delay by the Georgia Department of Revenue, with only 55 scholarships being given out by the eight scholarship-granting organizations approved by late September, according to the Georgia Family Council.

The Tuition Tax Credit program, which has an initial yearly cap of $50 million, allows individuals and businesses to receive a tax credit for donations to student scholarship organizations (SSOs). The approved SSOs determine which students are qualified to receive the scholarships, which in turn allow parents to decide which accredited private school would be best for their children.

Finalizing Details

Eric Cochling, vice president of public policy for the Georgia Family Council, a nonprofit research organization based in Norcross, said one major reason for the program’s slow start was that the rules and regulations dictating how the tax credits would be handled for small, closely held limited liability corporations were still being finalized in late September.

“So a lot of the corporate support that we know is out there is being delayed until those corporations feel secure about where the law is and how they are going to be treated when they make their donations,” Cochling explained. “Even with that said, we have a lot of individuals and companies who are already giving, and with the money, scholarships are being given out.”

State Sen. Eric Johnson (R-Savannah), who sponsored the bill creating the program last spring, said he understands it takes time to grow such a program, with several SSOs setting up nonprofit corporations and getting the word out to donors.

“I don’t expect to see many this year. But it will grow exponentially,” Johnson said.

Giving for Kids

Johnson said he has gotten a great response from Georgia businesses when he lets them know that instead of just giving a dollar to the government, they can give a dollar to fund a scholarship for a child.

“They are always pleased to know there are alternatives,” Johnson said.

Cochling shares Johnson’s optimism for the program, especially since other states have already had so much success with similar ones. He said Pennsylvania’s 17-year-old Educational Improvement Tax Credit program is a model for Georgia’s.

According to the REACH Foundation, the school choice group overseeing Pennsylvania’s tax credit scholarships, more than 44,000 students in the commonwealth are currently attending the school of their parents’ choice through the program in the 2007-08 school year.

The Georgia Family Council in May announced a new division, the Center for an Educated Georgia, to promote school choice and educational reform statewide.

Promoting the new tax credit scholarship program is at the forefront of the new group’s mission. The center provides information about the scholarship organizations online at Cochling is serving as its interim director.

Improving Schools

To spread the word about the tax credit program, the Center for an Educated Georgia will produce advertisements, visit state and local chambers of commerce, and provide support for SSOs. The center will also commission original research showing the benefits of school choice.

Cochling said he thinks the program could eventually improve entire school systems if the scholarships are concentrated in the areas with the worst schools, such as Clayton County. That district was the first in Georgia to lose its accreditation, and just the third nationwide since 1969, earlier this year when the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, the accrediting organization responsible for the district, found the schools failed to meet six of the seven basic accreditation requirements.

Although the tax credit program does not have a family income limit for students receiving the scholarships, Cochling said most of the SSOs so far are focusing on providing funds for low-income students.

“I think this opens a new front in getting more choice for kids in Georgia,” Cochling said.

Georgia Geis ([email protected]) writes from Chicago.

For more information …

Center for an Educated Georgia: