A bill filed by state Rep. John Carson, R-northeast Cobb, concerning tax credits for school choice programs has reignited debate over the controversial topic.

In 2008, the General Assembly passed legislation creating the Qualified Education Expense Tax Credit Program allowing individuals and corporations to be credited for donations given to organizations that fund student scholarships at private schools.

Under existing law, however, Carson said student scholarship organizations that direct donations to private schools may also get into the accreditation business, which he says could be a conflict of interest.

Carson said his new bill, House Bill 68, seeks to prevent that from happening by mandating that no entity that owns, operates or is affiliated with a group that accredits schools is eligible to also be a student scholarship organization.

“…You can either do one or the other but not both, because to me it’s a clear conflict of interest,” he said. “If you’re controlling somebody’s accreditation and then you say, ‘Oh, I want to make fees off your SSO (student scholarship organization) business.’ To me that’s just not right. That’s not serving the kids …

“It would be like (auditing firm) KPMG auditing your books and then after a couple of years saying ‘Yeah, we’ll continue auditing your books but you’re going to buy all these consulting services from us. Otherwise, we’re going to give you a bad audit.”

Carson said there was one accreditation organization in Georgia looking to become an SSO, but he refused to name them.

State Rep. Ginny Ehrhart, R-Powder Springs, a co-sponsor of Carson’s bill, identified the organization as Colorado-based Association of Christian Schools International, which accredits many of Cobb’s private schools.

Ehrhart called Carson’s bill straightforward legislation that protects the integrity of both SSOs and accrediting agencies while ensuring private schools “don’t become subject to any undue pressure or influence.”

HELPING FAMILIES OR HURTING SCHOOLS?

Carson said Georgia’s tax credit program gives families that otherwise can’t afford it the opportunity to enroll their children in private schools.

But Democrats and some Republicans are critical of the program, saying the dollar-for-dollar credits siphon money away from the public schools that need it most.

On the last day of the 2018 legislative session, lawmakers from both chambers agreed to raise the state cap on private school scholarship tax credits from $58 million to $100 million through 2028 — legislation also authored by Carson.

Carson, a certified public accountant, is listed as director of public policy & business development for Monarch Private Capital, which specializes in state and federal tax credits, according to its website.

Carson’s bio on the company’s website says “he monitors public policy in many of the states in which MPC operates, excluding Georgia, and handles business development initiatives.”

Among the Republicans to vote against raising the cap was state Sen. Lindsey Tippins, R-west Cobb, who resigned his seat as chairman of the Senate Education Committee after breaking with the majority of his party on another controversial bill he believed would adversely affect Georgia’s public schools.

Connie Jackson, president of the Cobb County Association of Educators, said more often than not, the families that utilize private school tax credits are those who can already afford to pay private school tuition.

“I think anything that pulls money away from public schools is a bad idea,” Jackson said. “Our public schools need all the money that they can get to become the best that they can. Tax credit scholarships are usually used by people who don’t need the money.”

Carson said that was a myth, arguing that for many low-income families, private school tax credits offer the only chance to get their children out of the “failing” schools they’re districted to attend.

About 75 percent of families who utilize the program, according to Carson, have an annual household income of $62,000 or less.

“It’s important to continue and expand school choice in Georgia because it’s important for parents to have options on their child’s education, and it’s important for kids to have options, both of which are not dependent upon a particular zip code,” Carson said. “Democrats tend to oppose these because they love state-run schools. Regardless of the impact, regardless of the result, they want everybody to go to a government-run school … They know this program is working, they know that kids’ lives are being turned around, but they want government control of all these kids.”

State Rep. David Wilkerson, D-Powder Springs, said if the credit is meant to help lower-income families, there should be an income requirement in place.

“John’s just going to continue to take money from public education as much as he can,” Wilkerson said. “It has nothing to do with giving opportunities to low income students. If it did, we would gear the program toward that … If it costs $15,000 to go to a school and they give you a $3,000 credit, no low income family is going to be able to afford that difference.”

What these scholarships do, Wilkerson said, is allow private schools to hike their tuition costs and then add programs that are subsidized by the government.

“If I give money to my local PTA, for example — I give $1,000 — I get to deduct it on my taxes,” he said. “If I give $1,000 to these private schools, then I get that whole $1,000 back from the government … On top of that, when you file your federal taxes, you get to deduct that as well. So you’re actually making money off these tax credits.”

Republican Cobb school board member Randy Scamihorn said he opposed the Legislature raising the tax credit cap last year, saying it gives private school families “a bigger piece of the pie” needed to educate Georgia’s children.

“There are certain benefits that we provide for the good of everyone that everybody has to pay for, and public education is one of those things,” Scamihorn said. “They’re moving money and they’re not trying to show how it’s equitable or how it’s going to benefit the common good of everyone that can’t go with them. That’s the problem.”

Stephen Owens, senior policy analyst for the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, said private school tax credits divert funds from the public schools most Georgia students attend.

“While the state of Georgia gave $9 billion less to public schools, this program was growing by leaps and bounds,” he said, referring to Georgia’s austerity cuts for K-12 public education.

He said if the cap is reached, that represents about $650 million in state funding that has been diverted since the program began to subsidize private schools without any real accountability.

“We have no idea if that money is being used well,” Owens said, adding that figure will grow by another $1 billion over the next 10 years thanks to lawmakers raising the cap.

“Is this the best use of money for Georgia’s kids?” he asked.

Jackson argues the majority of families who withdraw their kids from public schools to take advantage of the scholarship credits are not districted to attend underperforming schools in the first place.

“You’re pulling money that could go to those lower socioeconomic schools away and giving it to a kid that can already afford private school,” she said. “People that believe everyone should have a great education and that everyone should have equal opportunity believe in public schools, regardless of party affiliation.”

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