Let’s think about school funding today, a subject that seldom makes its way into a column about religion and ethics. There is simply not enough money to go around in Georgia’s public schools. A few years ago we cut our Pre-K program (one of the best investments we can make in our children) by $54 million, reduced the K-12 budget by $110 million and slashed the higher education budget by $174 million. That’s lamentable, you say, but what is a state to do?
I wonder how many citizens realize that Georgia lost $58 million in tax revenue this year by allowing private citizens and public corporations to contribute money for private school scholarships? A couple could designate up to $2,500 to these scholarships, directly reducing their Georgia income tax dollar for dollar. A corporation could reduce its tax bite by up to 75 percent for the same program, thanks to the Georgia Private School Tax Credit Law, passed by the Republican Legislature five years ago and signed by then-Gov. Sonny Perdue.
Georgia’s law is the most loosely supervised in the nation, forbidding almost all public disclosure of how this money is spent; audits remain private information and awards are not tied to financial need. This money is funneled to both religious and secular private schools, meaning that taxpayers are using state tax dollars to support religious schools with various theologies and teachings.
Supporters of this law suggested that it would save the state money, but their claims of savings are not supportable by the data. Furthermore, supporters claim that the scholarships would go to poorer students, allowing them to opt out of public school. Again, the evidence is shaky and depends on some manipulation of the data. The claim that the money has increased the racial diversity of these schools is also unsubstantiated. Moreover, the 2013 Georgia legislative session stripped further financial restraint from the law, allowing it to take an even larger bite from the state tax coffers.
What could our state do with an extra $58 million in revenue? I realize this amount is a “pittance,” but that amount of money would bolster the Pre-K program and pay incredible dividends for generations to come.
Here’s another thought: We have a friend who welcomed her students back to the public school classroom last week. She has 30 first graders sitting in desks, absolutely no room for those little wiggly bodies to run or play. She will spend hundreds of dollars on them out of her own pocket and even if she were to keep track of the expenses for crayons, extra paper, tissue, glue etc., she could not legally get a dollar for dollar credit like she could for this private school giveaway. She could get a pittance of a deduction which might make a difference of a few dollars on her taxes.
These are matters of importance to the religious community that have been largely unexamined. How shall we educate our children? What role should public and private schools play, and how should state tax dollars support private schools? More next week.
Creede Hinshaw, of Macon, is a retired Methodist minister.