School Choice Expands in Georgia

Shortly before midnight last night, the Georgia House of Representatives voted 168–3 to pass legislation that expands the Peach State’s scholarship tax credit program. The legislation also increases the program’s transparency and accountability while mostly resisting demands for unnecessary new regulations like mandatory standardized testing.

The total credit cap was raised from just over $52 million to $58 million—a good thing, but less than the $65 million that was in an earlier version of the bill. The increase came at the expense of the program’s annual adjustment for inflation, which is unfortunate beause, without additional legislative intervention to expand the program, the credits will be worth less with each passing year.

Most of the transparency and accountability provisions are narrowly tailored and greatly improve the program. The bill requires that scholarship organizations file an independent audit with the Georgia Department of Revenue to ensure that they are complying with the program’s regulations. The department must post information about the scholarship organizations’ contribution and award activities on its website. The bill also forbids the “earmarking” of donations for specific students, including the children of donors.

Some of the new regulations are counterproductive, such as the requirement that students spend at least six weeks in a public school before participating in the program. The requirement is essentially an accounting gimmick to inflate the program’s perceived savings by transforming almost all scholarship recipients into “switchers” from the public school system. Though there are some exceptions for students who are assigned to low-performing public schools, subject of bullying, or who have homeschooled for a year, the requirement is an unnecessary impediment to many families who would like to participate in the program. Moreover, critics see through the gimmick. There are other ways to demonstrate savings, as Florida has done, without creating needless hurdles for families to jump.

That said, Georgia’s school choice expansion is an impressive achievement.