ATLANTA - Georgia's law giving tax breaks to people who donate to nonprofits designed to pay for poor children to attend private K-12 schools is a "failed experiment," according to a study released Tuesday.
The Southern Education Foundation study shows there have been multiple violations of the state's "student scholarship organization" law because it doesn't require the reporting of information on the students receiving scholarships or the private schools where they attend. In some cases, students benefiting from the scholarships never actually attended public schools and a few of those students are attending private schools that don't meet the law's accreditation requirements, the study shows.
"This law has failed in every way to provide the general public with any accountability for how tax-diverted funds are spent for an educational purpose," said Steve Suitts, vice president of the foundation. "We recommending that this program be fastly mended or ended."
Supporters of the program say the funds given to the students are private donations and shouldn't be subject to the same transparency as state dollars. Lawmakers say the law gives parents the power to choose where to send their children, no matter their income.
Rep. Earl Ehrhart, a Republican from Powder Springs, said the foundation's report is "absurd" and isn't based on facts.
"This is a far left-wing extremist organization that hates the fact that children may not receive an education under their control," Ehrhart said. "They are discounting the facts that show this program has had a significant positive impact in the lives of thousands of children."
The Atlanta-based Southern Education Foundation is a nonprofit that focuses on improving educational equality in the South. It was founded in 1867.
Georgia lawmakers have touted the law as a way to help low-income children go to private schools and save the state money by freeing up government funding for other children in public schools.
But the law contains no income cap for recipients. The study suggests that Rep. David Casas, a Republican from Lilburn, is promoting the enrollment of private school students in public schools - without having them attend - solely to qualify for the scholarships.
Casas said he doesn't think the law should require public school enrollment at all.
"I wouldn't make parents jump through that hoop. I would open it up to any kid," Casas said. "That requirement is being pushed by those on the other side of this issue."
A spokeswoman for Gov. Nathan Deal declined comment.
The study gives examples of private schools in Barrow, Cobb, Gwinnett, Cherokee, Forsyth, Fulton, Glynn, and Lowndes counties instructing parents how to enroll in public schools so that their children can qualify for the scholarships to actually attend private schools. At least one private school provided the public school enrollment form on their website.
"This is a direct public deception," Suitts said during a news conference Tuesday.
Georgia residents can get up to $2,500 in tax breaks annually for donating to one of the organizations. The study shows that $72.1 million in tax breaks have been handed out during the three years of the program, even though the law capped the refunds at $50 million.
So far, 32 student scholarship organizations have been registered with the state, but only one reports information on student recipients, the study shows.
The study comes as school districts across the state grapple with massive budget shortfalls and hand out pink slips to teachers after years of state funding cuts.
Georgia is one of seven states with such scholarship organizations, but it requires the least amount of documentation.
For example, Florida collects the gender, race and income level of students in the program, while Georgia doesn't require any information on scholarship recipients and is the only state that doesn't have an income cap for recipients.
Georgia's student scholarship law was introduced in 2008 by lawmakers frustrated that a proposed universal school voucher program - where any family could use public money to send their children to private schools - failed to pass the legislature. The state has a school voucher program for special needs students, but attempts to expand that have failed repeatedly.
This year, state lawmakers passed a bill that requires all student scholarship organizations to report the number and amounts of tax credits issued and the number and value of scholarships awarded. The bill also limits the amount of each scholarship to no more than what public school students receive in state and local tax dollars annually.
Ehrhart said the changes to the law, which take effect July 1, are designed to increase how much the student scholarship organizations have to report.
"I'm going to continue to fight for more transparency," he said.