Opt-in tax credits give boon to midstate private schools.

By CARL V. LEWIS

clewis@macon.com

The Telegraph/Macon.com

Originally appeared Aug. 7, 2010

 

Donna Drummond’s family members pay part of their state income taxes to an unusual place: her 6-year-old daughter’s private K-12 school.

Drummond’s daughter Laney is attending The Westfield School in Perry this fall using scholarship money from an opt-in taxpayer-funded scholarship program.

At least 254 other midstate students like Laney are receiving a free or reduced price private school education this fall, adding up to about $750,000 in scholarships in Middle Georgia alone, according to information from Georgia GOAL, the scholarship organization administering most of the money.

As part of a law passed by Gov. Sonny Perdue in 2008 and just now gaining popularity, taxpayers can redirect state income taxes to one of 29 independent scholarship organizations approved by the Georgia Department of Education.

A couple can redirect up to $2,500 in state income tax payments annually to their chosen scholarship organization, and an individual can redirect up to $1,000.

After redirecting the money to one of the scholarship organizations, individuals don’t choose which students receive scholarships — that’s up to the scholarship organizations — but they can choose what private school they want their money to be donated to.

Under the law, up to $50 million in income tax payments can be redirected toward private-school scholarships statewide each year.

Boon to midstate private schools

The scholarships — which are available only to students transferring from a public school or entering kindergarten — have allowed private schools in the area to recruit new students and keep enrollments steady despite the slack economy.

Most Middle Georgia private schools are participating this fall in Georgia GOAL, the largest of the approved scholarship organizations. Mount de Sales Academy, in Macon, participates in a different approved scholarship organization, GRACE Scholars, which is specifically designed for Catholic schools.

The GOAL and GRACE programs, which both administer need-based scholarships, have helped midstate private schools enroll new low-income students whose parents wouldn’t normally be able to afford a private education.

Officials at First Presbyterian Day School, Stratford Academy, Tattnall Square Academy, Mount de Sales Academy and The Westfield School said they have all either met or exceeded predicted enrollment figures and expect stable operating budgets this fall.

At Stratford, Headmaster Bob Veto said he’s expecting about 940 students roaming the halls when classes begin Aug. 17. That’s up significantly from the 914 students enrolled last year.

“There’s no question this increase in enrollment is directly tied to the GOAL scholarship, which has allowed a lot of new families to send their kids here,” Veto said.

Veto said the GOAL program has boosted Stratford’s financial aid budget by more than $100,000 this year. The growth in enrollment has allowed Stratford to add new computer labs and four new employees this fall.

At First Presbyterian Day School, Headmaster Gregg Thompson told a similar story. Thompson said he’s expecting 971 students this fall, which is up from last year because of the more than $100,000 extra the school has on hand to dole out GOAL scholarships.

“I think people like the idea of being able to direct the way their taxes are spent, and I know we’ve gotten a lot of people directing it toward us,” Thompson said. “We’re not making cuts at FPD like you’re seeing at some of the public schools.”

Statewide effects

Lisa Kelly, president of the GOAL scholarship program, said the organization is planning to administer a total of $6.5 million in need-based aid to about 1,700 students statewide this fall.

Directing money toward GOAL or any of the other approved scholarship organizations is considered a tax credit, not a tax write-off, which means that 100 percent of the money donated is slashed from the individual’s state income taxes, Kelly said.

Kelly said families seeking to receive scholarships from the GOAL program must demonstrate financial need based on roughly the same criteria that’s necessary to receive free or reduced lunches at public schools.

But GOAL is just one of the many approved scholarship organizations, and there’s nothing in the law mandating that household income be a consideration of other organizations.

“At GOAL, we have very clear guidelines and income requirements for all students who we give scholarships to, and we’re aiming to be transparent, but there’s nothing requiring us do that. I’m concerned that some of the other scholarship organizations could possibly take advantage of this law and give tax-funded scholarships to kids who don’t need it as badly as others,” Kelly said.

Kelly said she thinks the law needs to be strengthened to allow for more oversight and to require scholarship organizations to be more transparent.

Jennifer Hackemeyer, chief counsel with the Georgia Department of Education, said the Department of Education only has the power either to approve or reject scholarship organizations based upon whether they meet the tax-exempt qualifications.

“The way the law is written, there’s very little oversight on our part. The (scholarship organizations) basically just have to show us that they’re registered. If someone has a concern that the law isn’t strong enough, they should take that up with the legislators,” Hackemeyer said.

Hackemeyer said there’s not really a good way of telling how much total scholarship money has been given out statewide — or what qualifications the scholarship organizations use — since they all operate autonomously of each other.

But for Drummond, a single Fort Valley mother, the important part is that her daughter has been given an opportunity previously out of reach.

“This has been such a huge, huge blessing. I never thought I’d get to send my daughter to a Christian school where she’d also be stimulated intellectually, and I couldn’t have done it without this money.”

To contact writer Carl V. Lewis, call 744-4347.