GOAL's priority is transparency

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Heritage Academy on Greene Street is a private school in all aspects except the stereotypes.

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Jessica Mack uses a touch screen projector to teach her pupils at Heritage Academy. The Georgia GOAL Scholarship Program awards aid to 40 percent of Heritage pupils.   Corey Perrine/Staff
Corey Perrine/Staff
Jessica Mack uses a touch screen projector to teach her pupils at Heritage Academy. The Georgia GOAL Scholarship Program awards aid to 40 percent of Heritage pupils.

Its pupils dress in crisp uniforms, and its teachers say education should be held to the highest standard.

But the families who send their children to Heritage aren't there because of their wealth or country club status.

Last year, 85 percent of the pupils qualified for free or reduced-price lunch, and those pupils' families had an average income of $19,000 per year

All of the pupils attend on some type of financial aid, but Executive Director Linda Tucciarone said one scholarship in particular has made it possible to expand her school to more needy children than ever.

The Georgia GOAL Scholarship Program, one of 33 student scholarship organizations in the state, awards aid to 40 percent of Heritage pupils through tax credits.

Three years after the state Legislature passed a law that created tuition tax credits, supporters say the program gives low-income families a choice in their education, but critics argue flaws in the law's structure have allowed for serious abuses in the way the organizations hand out money.

The Southern Education Foundation released a two-year study Tuesday, proposing that many of the state's student scholarship organizations lack accountability and are mishandling how they direct their money.

Although the legislation was created to help low-income students, the law does not require the organizations to publish financial data of their recipients or the dollar value of scholarships awarded.

Foundation Vice President Steve Suitts said this lack of transparency makes it so scholarship organizations get away with awarding public money to students not in need and lets them use more money to pay administrators than is allowed in the law.

"Instead of providing the state's neediest children attending troubled public schools with new, affordable opportunities for a good education, the law has been carried out, in a large part, as a means to publicly finance the attendance of relatively well-to-do students, many of whom are already in private schools," according to the report.

Supporters of the program, however, say the scholarship organizations live up to the intent of the law and make it so needy students have a chance at a better education.

GOAL President Lisa Kelly said the foundation's analysis is filled with misstatements and errors.

Since its founding in 2008, GOAL has awarded more than $11 million in scholarships to needy students. Most recently, the average income of a GOAL scholarship recipient's family was $47,797. It has awarded more than $982,180 to Augusta students attending six private schools in Richmond County.

Though student scholarship organizations are not required to release this information to the public, Kelly said GOAL voluntarily publishes this on its Web site.

"We want to provide to the public a lot of comfort and a lot of openness about how these funds are being used," Kelly said. "And rather than a broad brush indictment of the whole program based on what may be some bad practices by smaller SSOs, there should be some more attention put on the fact that we as (the state's largest scholarship organization) have policies based on the letter of the law."

But the study also showed not all scholarship organizations are as transparent as the Southern Education Foundation recognized GOAL to be.

The foundation said some scholarship organizations abuse the law by telling families to register their children in a public school but not attend, so they qualify for the scholarships that are intended for public school students transferring to private schools.

Although it might be voluntary, Tucciarone said her school and the scholarship organization she works with -- GOAL -- make transparency a priority.

When applying for the scholarship, Tucciarone said families must submit documents to show they qualify. This includes proof that the pupil attended a public school and financial documents to show income.

"To me, we're exactly what the law had in mind," Tucciarone said. "We're not here trying to protect our checkbooks; we're here because we believe children deserve a good education no matter what their income is."

According to its study, the foundation said the law requires scholarship organizations to distribute at least 67.5 percent of each year's tax credits for scholarships, but "available records show that the SSOs raising much of the tax-diverted funds in 2008 and 2009 failed to meet this requirement."

The report also asserts that this program allows public money to fund private schools, which don't have to publish performance records like public schools do.

Georgia is one of seven states that have tax credit scholarships but is the only one that doesn't require the publication of all financial and demographic information.

The law, which was amended this year, says scholarship organizations all have to report audits, including a list of donors and amounts of contributions, to the U.S. Revenue Department, but it also states this information is confidential from the public.

Alan Richard, the director of communications for the Atlanta-based Southern Regional Education Board, said if anything else, the debate on scholarship organizations has raised questions about their transparency.

He said the organizations have been known to help poor students in troubled schools receive a better education, but the state law also could is cloudy for some.

"One question becomes, too, which proportions of the population are the schools really helping? I think that's a legitimate question. It also raises policy questions. If such schools then draw students away from struggling schools, what happens to the students that are left?"

For Marsha Vaughn, whose niece and nephew attend Heritage on the GOAL scholarship, the program has offered opportunities she never thought possible. Her niece and nephew, whom she is raising, attended public school until sixth grade, but she wanted them have the benefits of a private school.

"If I put it simply, what GOAL has done for me and my kids, it has allowed my kids access to quality education they normally would not be able to receive otherwise," she said. "That's why I dread the day I would ever pick up a paper and read that the program has been done away with."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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.


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