ATLANTA — A ranking Republican wants to expand a Georgia tax credit system that benefits private school students, even as critics have asked the state to investigate whether donors are illegally earmarking scholarships for specific students.
Rep. Earl Ehrhart, R-Powder Springs, recently filed legislation that would allow Georgia to give $80 million in tax credits to people and corporations who donate to tuition scholarships for private school students. That program is currently capped at about $50 million.
In a policy change, Ehrhart also would allow up to $100 million for tax credits to people and firms who donate money to enrichment programs for public school teachers. Ehrhart said he intends to file an amendment so those donations also could underwrite fine arts programs.
“These are some of the programs that the state, in these economic times, has really not had the budget to fund,” he said.
When the scholarship program began, supporters called it a way to help low-income students leave troubled public schools and afford private school tuition, which can cost thousands of dollars annually. But Ehrhart’s bill would eliminate any requirement that a student first attend a public school before qualifying for a private school scholarship.
Under the plan, individual taxpayers could get tax credits for donations up to 75 percent of their Georgia income tax liability. The limits are now set at $1,000 annually for individuals and $2,500 for married couples.
Ehrhart is the CEO of Faith First Georgia, a scholarship provider that receives donations and awards them to private school students.
Several lawmakers and groups are wary of an expansion. Last week, the Southern Education Foundation asked Georgia tax authorities to investigate whether scholarship providers and schools were directly or indirectly allowing donors – including parents of students – to earmark their donations for individual students.
“This bill is a cynical attempt to buy the support of public school parents for a failed, unethical system of private school scholarships and to build a system by which public funds are used privately to finance education – in effect, to privatize public education in Georgia,” said Steve Suitts, the vice president of the SEF.
Department of Revenue spokesman Jud Seymour said the agency is still reviewing the SEF complaint.
Across the Statehouse, Senate Democrats have introduced bills seeking more information about who benefits from the scholarship program. Measures would force private schools to report to the state Board of Education how much money their students receive in tax credit-funded scholarships. They also would eliminate the state’s ability to increase the value of the existing tax credit to keep up with inflation.
Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, said that because he did not have enough votes to end the program, he wanted to increase the information available to state officials.
“I believe that the intent was all along for wealthy parents to be able to designate money for their children, and nothing that I’ve seen since then makes me think otherwise,” he said.
Sen. Fran Millar, R-Atlanta, said he thinks state lawmakers should create a study committee to investigate the program and compare it with similar systems in other states. Millar described himself as favoring school choice but said the issues raised by the Southern Education Foundation need to be resolved.
“It would be very hard for me to raise the cap until these particular points we’re talking about and others are addressed,” he said.