The New York Times has an article about how public scholarships have been backed doored to private schools.
When the Georgia legislature passed a private school scholarship program in 2008, lawmakers promoted it as a way to give poor children the same education choices as the wealthy.
The program would be supported by donations to nonprofit scholarship groups, and Georgians who contributed would receive dollar-for-dollar tax credits, up to $2,500 a couple. The intent was that money otherwise due to the Georgia treasury — about $50 million a year — would be used instead to help needy students escape struggling public schools.
That was the idea, at least. But parents meeting at Gwinnett Christian Academy got a completely different story last year.
“A very small percentage of that money will be set aside for a needs-based scholarship fund,” Wyatt Bozeman, an administrator at the school near Atlanta, said during an informational session. “The rest of the money will be channeled to the family that raised it.”
A handout circulated at the meeting instructed families to donate, qualify for a tax credit and then apply for a scholarship for their own children, many of whom were already attending the school.
“If a student has friends, relatives or even corporations that pay Georgia income tax, all of those people can make a donation to that child’s school,” added an official with a scholarship group working with the school.
The exchange at Gwinnett Christian Academy, a recording of which was obtained by The New York Times, is just one example of how scholarship programs have been twisted to benefit private schools at the expense of the neediest children.
Spreading at a time of deep cutbacks in public schools, the programs are operating in eight states and represent one of the fastest-growing components of the school choice movement. This school year alone, the programs redirected nearly $350 million that would have gone into public budgets to pay for private school scholarships for 129,000 students, according to the Alliance for School Choice, an advocacy organization. Legislators in at least nine other states are considering the programs.
While the scholarship programs have helped many children whose parents would have to scrimp or work several jobs to send them to private schools, the money has also been used to attract star football players, expand the payrolls of the nonprofit scholarship groups and spread the theology of creationism, interviews and documents show. Even some private school parents and administrators have questioned whether the programs are a charade.
Most of the private schools are religious. Nearly a quarter of the participating schools in Georgia require families to make a profession of religious faith, according to their Web sites. Many of those schools adhere to a fundamentalist brand of Christianity. A commonly used sixth-grade science text retells the creation story contained in Genesis, omitting any other explanation. An economics book used in some high schools holds that the Antichrist — a world ruler predicted in the New Testament — will one day control what is bought and sold.
The programs are insulated from provisions requiring church-state separation because the donations are collected and distributed by the nonprofit scholarship groups.
A cottage industry of these groups has sprung up, in some cases collecting hundreds of thousands of dollars in administrative fees, according to tax filings. The groups often work in concert with private schools like Gwinnett Christian Academy to solicit donations and determine who will get the scholarships — in effect limiting school choice for the students themselves. In most states, students who withdraw from the schools cannot take the scholarship money with them.
Public school officials view the tax credits as poorly disguised state subsidies, part of an expanding agenda to shift tax dollars away from traditional public schools. “Our position is that this is a shell game,” said Chris Thomas, general counsel for the Arizona School Boards Association.
Some of the programs have also become enmeshed in politics, including in Pennsylvania, where more than 200 organizations distribute more than $40 million a year donated by corporations. Two of the state’s largest scholarship organizations are controlled by lobbyists, and they frequently ask lawmakers to help decide which schools get the money, according to interviews. The arrangement provides a potential opportunity for corporate donors seeking to influence legislators and also gives the lobbying firms access to both lawmakers and potential new clients.
SCHOLARSHIP STAR Keyante Green (No. 1) left public school for the Eagle’s Landing Christian Academy.
ROUGH-AND-TUMBLE POLITICS A school-choice group paid for ads against Dan Gelber, a Florida attorney general candidate.
The programs differ from state to state, with varying tax benefits for donors and varying rules on who may receive the scholarships. Arizona’s largest program permits donors to recommend students who already attend private schools. Pennsylvania’s program lets them get scholarships and also lets scholarship organizations retain up to 20 percent in administrative fees.
Some states have moved to tighten restrictions after receiving complaints. In Florida, where the scholarships are strictly controlled to make sure they go to poor families, only corporations are eligible for the tax credits, eliminating the chance of parents donating for their own benefit. Also, all scholarships are handled by one nonprofit organization, and its fees are limited to 3 percent of donations. Florida also permits the scholarships to move with the students if they elect to change schools.
David Figlio, a professor at Northwestern University who has studied Florida’s program, said it was an important alternative to public schools for some families. “They’re doing it because they’re feeling stuck,” Dr. Figlio said. “Their kids are doing poorly in the classroom, and they don’t know why.”
In Georgia, the scholarship program was criticized for widespread abuses in a report last year by the Southern Education Foundation, a nonprofit group based in Atlanta that works to improve education.
State Representative Earl Ehrhart, a Republican who helped write the Georgia law, called that report “sophistry” and said that any abuses in the program were anomalies. “I can’t tell you about the difference it makes in the lives of these kids,” Mr. Ehrhart said.
The report found that from 2007, the year before the program was enacted, through 2009, private school enrollment increased by only one-third of one percent in the metropolitan counties that included most of the private schools in the scholarship program.
The logical conclusion was that most of the students receiving the scholarships had not come from public schools.
“The law was passed under a certain promise,” said Steve Suitts, vice president of the foundation. “There is no evidence it’s going to those purposes. The kids who were supposed to benefit are not benefiting.”
The scholarship programs represent the expansion of a mission that began more than 10 years ago, when the school choice movement ran into headwinds over the use of vouchers. Vouchers, which directly use public money to finance private school educations, were unpopular among many voters and legislators, and several state courts had found them unconstitutional.
Proponents decided to reposition themselves, and in 1997, Arizona’s Legislature adopted the first tax-credit scholarship program.
For school choice advocates, the genius of the program was that the money would never go into public accounts, making it less susceptible to court challenges. Representative Trent Franks, an Arizona Republican and former state lawmaker, is credited with the idea of routing the donations through nonprofit organizations. “The teachers’ union called it fiendishly clever,” Mr. Franks said during a recent interview.
“The difficulty of getting at this thing from a constitutional point of view is that there are private dollars coming from a private individual and going to a private foundation. It drives the N.E.A. completely off the wall because they can’t say this is government funding,” Mr. Franks said, referring to the National Education Association.
Kevin Welner, a professor of education at the University of Colorado, Boulder, who wrote a book on the tax-credit programs, dubbed them “neovouchers.”
As predicted, tax credits have thus far withstood legal challenges, most recently when the Supreme Court upheld Arizona’s program last year. It had been challenged on the grounds that it violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which prohibits government endorsement of religion.