If we wait long enough, critics of Georgia’s tax-credit scholarships just might admit the data we have about the program present a different picture than the one they’ve been drawing.
Three years ago, complaints about opacity prompted legislators to require more reporting about the program, which awards state income-tax credits to those who donate to approved private-school scholarships. The state now reports some basic demographic data about scholarship recipients.
So far, we only have data for 2013; figures for 2014 should come out later this year. The data show there were more scholarships awarded to students from the highest-earning 25 percent of Georgia families (2,248) than the lowest quartile (1,719).
So, does this program favor “the rich”?
As some context shows, absolutely not.
The largest number of recipients by far — 3,126 — are in the second-highest quartile. Next comes the second-lowest quartile, with 2,531. In all, almost 60 percent of the scholarships go to kids in the middle half of the income spectrum.
OK, but what about all those kids in the top group? Should any of them be getting anything? Aren’t they affluent by definition?
That depends. Does your definition of affluence begin at $62,202 per year? That is where the top income quartile begins.
In fact, it is possible in Georgia to be in that top income group and still qualify for free and reduced-price lunch at public schools.
How? One factor in determining free and reduced lunch eligibility is the size of the household. In 2013, a two-parent family with five children (or other dependents) still would have qualified for reduced-price lunch with income of almost $65,900.
What’s more, it’s likely that the value of the scholarships awarded to lower-income families was greater than those awarded to higher-income families.
For example, the largest student scholarship organization, Georgia GOAL, reports that 51 percent of its scholarships have gone to families whose income is less than $24,000. But those families got almost 56 percent of the money. Families earning more than $60,000 got 3.6 percent of the awards, but 3.1 percent of the money.
Another instructive example comes from Arete Scholars. To receive a scholarship from Arete, one’s family income must be below 185 percent of the federal poverty level (full award) or no more than 245 percent of FPL (partial award).
So it’s worth noting that even Arete in 2013 awarded 44 scholarships to families in the top quartile. Why? Because, as we’ve seen, not everyone in the top quartile is actually affluent.
Still have doubts? Here’s a reference point: In Atlanta, a two-adult, two-child family with income at 245 of FPL could also get a subsidy for half the cost of a “silver” health-insurance plan on the Obamacare exchange.
Personally, I want choices for all students, in all places, at all times. But for those who disagree, the data simply do not support the idea “wealthy” people are getting all, most, or even a disproportionate share of the scholarship money. They come much closer to suggesting the reverse.