Tax credit at issue in campaign

Maria Mitchell is so eager to do her homework when she comes home each day from Heritage Academy, her grandfather has had to make a sacrifice.


"I love to watch Judge Mathis every day at 4 o'clock, but she wants to do her homework," said William Mitchell, the former president of the East Augusta Neighborhood Association. "So, no Judge Mathis for me, but I don't mind."

More than that, Mitchell said, he is impressed by the enthusiasm Maria, 5, has for the small private Christian school in Olde Town Augusta. That's something he said was missing in his children, who all graduated from public schools.

A tuition tax credit law passed in 2008 has been a major boost to Heritage Academy. In the past two years, it has added 64 students who are receiving an average of $4,000 each from the Georgia GOAL Scholarship Program, the largest of 34 student scholarship organizations across the state that are funded by money taxpayers gave to them in lieu of state income tax.

But that law has proved controversial.

The gubernatorial candidates come down on different sides.

Democrat Roy Barnes is on record as saying he would work to repeal the 2008 law if elected.

Republican Nathan Deal has said he would favor expanding the annual funding cap for the tuition tax credits, which the legislation set at $50 million.

The Deal campaign did not return a phone call seeking comment, but Barnes campaign spokesman Emil Runge was adamant in his response to a reporter's query: "We shouldn't be taking taxpayer money to fund private schools when we're laying off schoolteachers and shortening the school year."

He said the same thing when it was pointed out that a significant portion of GOAL scholarship recipients live in low- to moderate-income families. He repeated the statement a third time when it was pointed out that low-income voters tend to lean Democratic.

As Barnes and public school advocates see it, the tax credit hurts public schools because it redirects taxpayer money to private schools.

"We certainly have no problem with private schools. They have a separate mission from public schools, and they do a great job fulfilling that mission," said Tim Callahan, the spokesman for the Professional Association of Georgia Educators. "But given that education has lost $3.5 billion in funding over the last several years, and the funding formula for education is outdated and ineffective, we don't think programs like this should be taking money from public schools, even indirectly as this one does."

That view, tax-credit supporters and private school advocates say, is too simplistic.

"The tax credit is state money, but the average amount of our scholarship is less than the state is paying to educate children in a local public school district," said Jim Kelly, Georgia GOAL's founder and general counsel. "It is not financially harming the public schools."

Mitchell said he doesn't see that the tax credits are taking money from public schools. He also said that he believes in public schools but that there are situations where a private school is a better fit for a child.

"For example, when I was president of the East Augusta Neighborhood Association, we adopted Hornsby (K-8 School)," said Mitchell, 75. "We spent time at Hornsby -- this was in 2001 when I became president -- and there are some things that make it different. They have a larger group of students, so there is more to be maintained by the teachers, as opposed to Heritage. ... Heritage stresses that parents are to be involved with their children. This can be different in a public school."

Shelia Rivers has two granddaughters attending Heritage. Tyliyah Rivers-Taylor, 7, is a second-grader, and Tamiyah Johnson, 6, is a first-grader. Tamiyah is at Heritage with the help of a GOAL scholarship, but Tyliyah is there with financial aid from other sources. Every Heritage student receives some degree of financial aid. The median income of a Heritage family is $19,000, and the median income of a Heritage GOAL recipient is $17,000. The average GOAL scholarship a Heritage student receives is $4,000, said Darlene Helmly of the school's development office.

"Even in the public school system, if they feel a school is not offering what the child is looking for, parents have an opportunity to switch the child to another public school," said Rivers, 50. "So why shouldn't I have that same route? My tax dollars are being used to put my child through school, whether it's public or private school. It has no effect on the public school."

Like Mitchell, Rivers said she is impressed with the enthusiasm her granddaughters have for Heritage. Every day, she makes the 20- to 30-minute drive from the Hephzibah area to downtown Augusta.

"Looking at the level of my granddaughter, she reads well above second grade, and she's in second grade," Rivers said. "There is a push from Heritage. They do not allow them to do just mediocre work. They really push this child. She can read newspaper articles. She reads everything she can get her hands on."

Linda Tucciarone, the executive director of Heritage Academy, said GOAL has allowed the school to expand much more quickly in the past two years than it had during its first eight years.

While Westminster Schools of Augusta hasn't seen the number of GOAL recipients that Heritage has --12 Westminster students received the scholarships this year -- the amount of those scholarships is significant, an average award of $7,000, said Carrie Brigham, the school's director of development.

Brigham added that 23 percent of Westminster students receive financial aid. Tuition there ranges from about $7,000 in lower school to $11,000 in upper school.

Headmaster Steve O'Neil said the school's philosophy is that if a student is qualified to attend Westminster, finances should not be a barrier. The tax credits, he said, are another source the school uses to provide financial aid.

"Every student should have opportunities for success, and public schools and private schools are both necessary," O'Neil said. "But there are times when ... a private school might offer a better opportunity for students. At the end of the day, it's about school choice and what's best for students."

How it works

In 2008, Gov. Sonny Perdue signed into law House Bill 1133, which allows taxpayers to designate money that otherwise would have paid Georgia income tax to instead fund student scholarship organizations, which provide scholarship aid to public school students seeking to enter private schools. Individuals may designate up to $1,000, married couples up to $2,500 on their joint return and corporations up to 75 percent of their income tax liability. Schools may apply for the scholarships on behalf of students.

Who gives

In 2009, about 11,000 Georgia taxpayers contributed an estimated $25.4 million to student scholarship organizations approved by the state Department of Education. Of these, 3,755 individuals and 45 corporations redirected $20.6 million of their state income tax liability to the Georgia GOAL Scholarship Program, the largest of the 34 student scholarship organizations in the state.

Local GOAL Schools

Six Augusta-area private schools are members of the Georgia GOAL Scholarship Program, the largest student scholarship organization in the state. They are:

- Augusta Christian Schools

- Augusta Preparatory Day School

- Curtis Baptist School

- Episcopal Day School

- Heritage Academy

- Westminster Schools of Augusta




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