Why school-choice objections failed judicial muster

When it comes to school choice, more lawmakers should listen to Ludacris. (AJC Photo / Taylor Carpenter)

When it comes to school choice, more lawmakers should listen to Ludacris. (AJC Photo / Taylor Carpenter)

One of the most disappointing things about Georgia’s failure to expand school choice measures has been the way too many lawmakers have accepted choice opponents’ premises at face value.

So, money for choice programs is seen as money diverted from schools, not devoted to education. The expenses public schools don’t incur to educate students they lose are never quantified, only the forgone revenue.

Academic performance, deemed an unhealthy obsession leading to high-stakes testing in public schools, is nonetheless the only metric opponents will use to gauge choice programs’ worth. Programs that help individual children attend private school become justifications for public oversight of those students, often by the same state bureaucracy that couldn’t prevent the public-school mediocrity that drove them away in the first place.

It was refreshing, then, to see how summarily some of these objections were dismissed when presented in a court of law. Earlier this month, a Fulton County Superior Court judge tossed out all but one count* of a lawsuit seeking to overturn Georgia’s tax-credit scholarship program as unconstitutional.

The plaintiffs, wrote Judge Kimberly M. Esmond Adams, failed to show “that the (scholarship) program increases their tax burden either by causing a net loss for the state or by increasing their tax bill.” Adams’ ruling instead accepts two counter-arguments that seem intuitive but are somehow lost on choice opponents in the Legislature and elsewhere:

“First, the state is already paying to educate each child in public school. When these children leave the public schools with a scholarship, the state no longer has to bear this expense,” she notes. “Second, no scholarship can exceed the amount of money that the state would have otherwise spent on these children. Indeed, as some of the scholarships will inevitably be only a portion of the amount the state pays to educate each child, the program may actually save the state money.”

The facts suggest that’s correct. While state spending per public-school pupil has increased in recent years, the average tax-credit scholarship award has instead fallen. According to the most recent available data, the average scholarship award equals roughly 70 percent of state per-pupil spending.

Three-quarters of scholarship families earn about $62,000 or less. That puts them barely above the level that would qualify the children in a family of four for Medicaid in Georgia, and well below the level most reasonable people would consider comfortably able to afford private school. So the vast majority of scholarship recipients are kids who would otherwise attend public school. Given all that, it’s not much of a leap to conclude the state is saving money when they go to private school.

Yet, for some reason, lawmakers continue to balk at the “cost” of expanding a money-saving program. Maybe they should stop listening to its opponents.

*You may have been wondering about the one count Adams allowed to go forward. It concerns the state’s obligation to enforce a prohibition on scholarship donors designating their gifts for a particular student, a provision intended to keep people from donating for their own children’s benefit. By all means, if a scholarship organization is breaking the law, it should be shut down.

Reader Comments 0

47 comments
Here's_to_Blue
Here's_to_Blue

I'm opposed to so-called school "choice," especially charter schools, in principle.  I believe that the ultimate goal of the school choice/charter school movement is a total dismantling of the public education system, making education solely into a for-profit industry.  That goal is cloaked in language of "rescuing children from failing schools" that sounds benign on the surface but shields the ulterior motive.

Here's_to_Blue
Here's_to_Blue

@LilBarryBailout It's not politics per se.  My opinion stems from a concern that too many people are trying to make our entire culture a for-profit one.

sethandrews22
sethandrews22

@Here's_to_Blue @LilBarryBailout I happen to share your sentiment about a cultural pre-occupation with profit AND still believe that programs like this are useful, if not necessary. Why should we be obligated to prop up "the public education system" (whatever that is) as the lone right way to educate the public? And why does that obligation end with the K-12 years?

Legong
Legong

Thank you, Kyle, for reporting on this. 

Other AJC blogs did not, perhaps because they are firmly in the camp of those who pretend the status quo isn't failing us or that parents can't be trusted to make politically correct choices.

Legislators would do well to empower parents with tuition vouchers and the freedom to use them in the public or private school which best meets their child's needs.

AvgGeorgian
AvgGeorgian

@Legong Hi Leduk8tr,  

Why would you think it's okay to take other peoples money for a program with very little reporting, very little transparency, no testing requirements - basically no accountability? How about applying the same standards to public schools that are applied to the state private school tax credit?

AvgGeorgian
AvgGeorgian

Ways wealthy can reduce income reported for private school tax credits.


"Step 1

Raise the amount you contribute to your 401k or 403b plan at work. Every dollar you contribute to a 401k or 403b is deducted from your federal taxable wages. For 2011, you can contribute up to $16,500 to a 401k or 403b plan, plus an extra $5,500 if you are 50 years of age or older. That means a 50 year old worker could shield up to $22,000 from taxation.

Step 2

Open an IRA account, or add to an existing one. If you are eligible for a traditional IRA, you can deduct up to $5,000 in contributions, plus an extra $1,000 if you are 50 or older.


Step 3

Opt for a high deductible health plan the next time open enrollment season comes around. Then couple that HDHP with a health savings account. You will save money on premiums by going with a high deductible plan, and the money you put into the HSA is tax deductible.

Step 4

Calculate your itemized deductions to see if itemizing can save you money. If you itemize your deductions, you can deduct things such as state and local taxes, property taxes, educational expenses, medical expenses and mortgage interest."


http://smallbusiness.chron.com/lower-adjusted-gross-income-tax-returns-17869.html


These strategies are rarely feasible to lower income earners and all the wealthy to appear to have a smaller income.

Legong
Legong

@AvgGeorgian 

Nine of thirty-six comments are from just you, which follows an all too familiar pattern on these blogs.

Please find another interest in life. Or maybe even an outside friend?

AvgGeorgian
AvgGeorgian

@Legong @AvgGeorgian Unlike you, I post under one name only. Perhaps you don't want knowledgeable challenging posts that expose the greed of charters and vouchers? You don't seem to chastise Old dog. I heard Old dog was a teachers' union member - sic-em!

Legong
Legong

@AvgGeorgian @Legong 

LOL. So tell us who else on this page you think is me.

Then go play in some other sandbox, and leave this blog for the adults.

AvgGeorgian
AvgGeorgian

@Legong @AvgGeorgian As usual, talk and no substance. Adults study and learn. Thank you for your contributions to this discussion - vague generalizations and homespun opinions from the R's talking points.

AvgGeorgian
AvgGeorgian

Kyle, could you please cite your source for the $62k figure. I trying to better understand the income levels.


Also the explanation below seems to indicate that SSO reporting is intentionally vague.


"Regarding income, SSOs currently report the number of families receiving scholarships, but not the total number or amount of scholarships, by quartile of Georgia adjusted gross income. This reporting provides little detail regarding the income distribution of scholarship recipients and no information on the distribution of scholarship dollars. Reporting by decile, and including the numbers of scholarship students and the total amounts awarded for each decile, would provide a better understanding of the distribution and would not require any additional effort." http://frc.gsu.edu/files/2014/06/Georgia-Tax-Credit-Scholarship_Nov2014.pdf


So wealthy families may may receive far more than 25% of value of the tax credits in terms of number of scholarships and dollar amounts.

Jefferson1776
Jefferson1776

Republicans want everything and want to pay for nothing.

Aquagirl
Aquagirl

Y'know what's really wrong with tax credit/voucher program(s)?


The hypocrisy.


When it's time to fund a student, Kyle and his conservative buddies are right on board with Hillary---it takes a village to raise a child. They have no problem with the progressive, liberal reasoning that takes money from those who don't have children in school. They are more than happy with the idea it's a shared community responsibility to make sure children get an education. So they want your money.


Oh, but when it's time to spend that money, the village can sod right off, suddenly the parents are solely responsible---despite what anyone else thinks about how their tax dollars are spent.


Hypocrisy like this is why I no longer vote Republican.

Lil_Barry_Bailout
Lil_Barry_Bailout

@Aquagirl

Real Americans are just trying to make the best of a system Democrats designed.  Be patient, it won't happen overnight with Democrats obstructing every attempt at reform.

Kyle_Wingfield
Kyle_Wingfield moderator

@Aquagirl  "Oh, but when it's time to spend that money, the village can sod right off, suddenly the parents are solely responsible---despite what anyone else thinks about how their tax dollars are spent."

How much say do you have over the way your state tax dollars are spent in public schools in Berrien County? In McIntosh County? In Union County?

Aquagirl
Aquagirl

@Kyle_Wingfield Ultimately I suppose the Governor is responsible, or someone he appointed. If I disapprove of how my tax dollars are spent I'm free to complain to him or vote against him. Now, that certainly doesn't mean I get my way, but there is a mechanism through which the people can express their will.

Your system, as usual, is taxation without representation. That's not a good thing.

And I noticed you're not owning your progressive side when it comes to school taxes. Come on out of the closet, Kyle, it's okay to be liberal. 

Kyle_Wingfield
Kyle_Wingfield moderator

@Aquagirl "it's okay to be a liberal"

LOL. Actually, I think liberals ought to be in favor of programs that help all children, regardless of race or income, get a good education.

Lil_Barry_Bailout
Lil_Barry_Bailout

@Starik @Lil_Barry_Bailout @Aquagirl

Democrats are powerless now because they failed so miserably during their decades-long racist reign of error.

Now they drag their feet while Republicans clean up their mess and whine about how long it's taking.

Lil_Barry_Bailout
Lil_Barry_Bailout

The only thing that matters here is that students are being shifted from bad schools to good ones.

And that's a good thing.

Wascatlady
Wascatlady

25% of the families who get the scholarship make more than $60,000 per year.  This, a scholarship for "poor" people!  And I am sorry, but $50,000 is darned good money--not "poor" at all!   Pretty much the only people who "get by" on more than $40,000 per year are two-teacher families.

AvgGeorgian
AvgGeorgian

@Wascatlady I estimate that each family in GA pays about $38 dollars in extra taxes per year due to the private school tax credit. That means each GA family pays at least 9$ per year to send wealthy kids to private schools.

AvgGeorgian
AvgGeorgian

@Lil_Barry_Bailout @AvgGeorgian @Wascatlady

Think about your household budget. If you choose to take in less income(tax credit)  than you were due and suddenly need to buy a car(transportation) that you can't afford on your current income, then you first have to make up that loss.

Kyle_Wingfield
Kyle_Wingfield moderator

@Wascatlady No one claimed it was a scholarship only for "poor" people. The argument against the program has been that we shouldn't subsidize "the rich." That is the argument I'm addressing. While $50,000 may be "darned good money," it certainly does not qualify as "rich." 

As for the quarter who make more than $60,000, unfortunately we have a limited reporting requirement that means we only know how many people make between $60,000 and infinity. I am confident that more finely reported data would show the people in the upper quartile are earning wages closer to $60,000 than, say, $125,000. As I've reported before, there are organizations that have fairly strict family-adjusted income limits on their scholarships but still make awards to people earning more than $60,000 -- because, if those families have 4-5 children, they still qualify as low-income according to federal guidelines.

Kyle_Wingfield
Kyle_Wingfield moderator

@AvgGeorgian So the yearly increases in per-pupil education spending that came before the transportation bill came from what tax increase, exactly?

AvgGeorgian
AvgGeorgian

Kyle, the decision didn't seem to take into account the students who had never gone to, and were never going to a public school. This increases everyone's taxes.


The $62,000 income figure - I had read that that was not a gross salary figure, but was the result of a formula that made it look like a family has much less income than it actually has. The state median household income average is about $47K. The 62,000 or less is a negative for the argument.


Of course, since this public taxpayer funding of private schools is well shielded from scrutiny, we don't really have a lot of facts to go on.



Wascatlady
Wascatlady

@AvgGeorgian (Until they found out they couldn't put it in writing, they had to just TELL those who inquired.)

Kyle_Wingfield
Kyle_Wingfield moderator

@AvgGeorgian "A formula that made it look like a family has much less income than it actually has."

That sounds more like a magic trick than a "formula."

Perhaps you are referring to adjusting for family size. This is the same "formula" the federal government uses to determine whether a family is in poverty or not. If you are a single person making $62,000, you are not in poverty. If you have a family of four making $62,000, your kids qualify for Medicaid in Georgia.

That's not "ma(king) it look like a family has much less income." That's showing how far that family's money actually goes. And it's routine in government, not some kind of trick.

sethandrews22
sethandrews22

@Kyle_Wingfield @AvgGeorgian Kyle, your use of the $62,000 figure is precisely why people don't trust the groups administering this program. My son attends a Gwinnett school serviced by "the state's largest student scholarship organization" (as they always refer to themselves) and what they've done is simple deceit. 


A few years ago they stopped using the standard AGI calculation used by the federal government (and most everyone else) and opted for the more obscure OECD. And overnight - voila! - their average AGI dropped from around $45-46,000 to the currently reported $25,000 for the same year. I've seen in the presentations to our school


Why do you suppose they did that? Have all other scholarship groups adopted the same misleading practice or are they still using the federal calculation that already adjusts for family size? 

AvgGeorgian
AvgGeorgian

@Kyle_Wingfield @AvgGeorgian I don't think it's the same formula the feds use. What I want to know is the gross income. This is an understood value for most people.


Again, the GA avg. household income seems to be 47K gross. I want to know how many people that make more than the average get private school scholarships. 


I also want to know how many kids get scholarships that were never in public schools.


Wascatlady
Wascatlady

If I don't like my state leadership, I can send my money to another group to lead my state, instead of paying my share of state taxes?  Sounds great!  

Lil_Barry_Bailout
Lil_Barry_Bailout

@Wascatlady

Is there a law that provides for that, as there is for the scholarship program?

If not, then no.  Continue paying your share as required.

BarryPaschal
BarryPaschal

@kwingfieldajc If I don't like my school I can divert taxes to a different one. If I dislike my tax-funded cops, can I divert $ to others?