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Tax Credit Scholarships Reignite Voucher Debate

In Georgia, among those returning when school resumes this month are several thousand students who attend private religious academies on scholarships paid for by taxpayers. Georgia is one of several states that allow businesses and individuals to receive tax credits for contributions to scholarship programs for kids, kindergarten through 12th grade.

The tax credit scholarships are popular with school choice advocates. Like vouchers, they use public money to pay for private education. But in Georgia, even some supporters say the scholarships may be open to abuse.

Tax Credits To Fund Public Education

Georgia parent Donna Neal says the only way she and her husband are able to send their 7-year-old son, Garrett, to Trinity Chapel Academy, a private school, is because of the tax credit scholarships.

Garrett, who is small for his age, has been diagnosed with attention deficit disorder. For her family, the small class size and attention Garrett received last year, his first year at Trinity Chapel Academy, was a godsend.

"We wanted a good environment, a loving environment, and here at Trinity Chapel, they have good discipline, but they also love on the kids while they discipline them. He actually thrived; he loved it," Neal says.

The Neals pay a small percentage, but the majority of Garrett's $6,800 tuition bill is provided by a scholarship fund. Businesses and individuals pay into the fund, which directs the money to private schools.

The program was created by Georgia's Legislature four years ago. About three-quarters of the private schools taking part in the program are religious. For Neal, the religion classes at Trinity Chapel Academy are part of the appeal.

What is being done today is, in fact, a backdoor way ... to try to subsidize private schooling, not only for kids who are now in the public schools, but for kids who are already in the private schools.

"I love that. Garrett last year had a Bible verse to learn every week. They teach him to help others and to pray over others. I firmly believe that this is the place that God has chosen for Garrett to be here," Neal says.

Georgia is not the only state using tax credits to fund private education. It's an idea that began in Arizona and has been picked up by several other states.

In Georgia, when it was proposed, it was sold as a way to help poor kids. But when the bill creating it was signed into law, it didn't include provisions making the scholarships need-based. And although it was presented as an option for kids not thriving in public schools, the law allows students currently in private schools to qualify for a scholarship simply by enrolling, but not actually attending, a public school.

Steve Suitts is with the Southern Education Foundation, an Atlanta-based group that's critical of the tax credit scholarships.

"What is being done today is, in fact, a backdoor way ... to try to subsidize private schooling, not only for kids who are now in the public schools, but for kids who are already in the private schools. It's a backdoor method of a voucher," Suitts says.

Even some groups involved with helping to craft Georgia's tax credit scholarships concede that the program may be open to abuses. Jamie Lord is with the Center for an Educated Georgia, a school choice group. She's read a Southern Education Foundation report on the program and agrees with at least one main point.

"There definitely is a lack of transparency, perhaps, in the program. I think what we can't draw from that report is that the program in a failure. What we can draw from it is we don't know enough to say one or another. And I think a lot of people would support having more information," Lord says.

In Georgia, however, the trend is in the other direction. Last year, the main sponsor of the tax credit scholarships, Republican state Rep. Earl Ehrhart, took to the House floor in support of a bill that made some changes to the program.

"These revisions are transparencies, efficiencies, data reporting and penalties for bad behavior. Ladies and gentlemen, that is all it does," Ehrhart says.

I'm a taxpayer. I pay taxes that fund public schools. It's nice that my state says, 'Hey, we'll give you an opportunity to decide how a portion of your hard-earned tax dollars are spent.'

Ehrhart didn't return calls for this story. Critics say the main impact of his revisions was to make it a crime to publicly disclose any information about the program, including who benefits from it.

State Money, Religious Education

Albert LaBoy is the headmaster at Trinity Chapel Academy in rural Cobb County, west of Atlanta. He calls it a "working man's private school," one with fewer than 300 students, and a few dozen are attending on tax credit scholarships. LaBoy says that at his school, all the scholarships are need-based.

Trinity Chapel accepts all faiths, but the curriculum does include religious instruction. Critics object, saying it amounts to using state money for religious education. LaBoy doesn't see that as a problem.

"I'm a taxpayer. I pay taxes that fund public schools. It's nice that my state says, 'Hey, we'll give you an opportunity to decide how a portion of your hard-earned tax dollars are spent,' " LaBoy says.

According to the Southern Education Foundation, many of the religious schools that take part in the scholarship program require students to make a profession of faith. The foundation's Steve Suitts says even more troubling to him is that many of these schools also discriminate against gays and lesbians.

"That is not unlawful in Georgia; it doesn't mean it isn't wrong. The fact is, this is saying that we are allowing public financing of schools to decide who to admit, who to expel, who to condemn, who to vilify on the basis of who they are," Suitts says.

Whether a child attends a religious school, or one that teaches beliefs and values that may be controversial is beside the point, says Derek Monjure. He runs a scholarship group, Arete Scholars Fund, that relies almost exclusively on corporate support and which targets all of its aid to needy kids. What's in a school's curriculum, he believes, is ultimately a question not for the government, but for the parents.

"A number of these private schools are doing excellent work. These kids that I know that we've helped who would have no opportunity otherwise are going to college. They're coming out of public housing and possibly going to break those cycles of poverty. And I don't know who could disagree with that," Monjure says.

Unlike previous voucher programs, the tax credit scholarships so far have stood up to court scrutiny. Last year, the Supreme Court upheld Arizona's tax credit scholarship law. In Georgia, critics believe the scholarships may violate the state's constitutional ban on using public money for religious activities, but so far no challenges have been filed.

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As NPR's Miami correspondent, Greg Allen reports on the diverse issues and developments tied to the Southeast. He covers everything from breaking news to economic and political stories to arts and environmental stories. He moved into this role in 2006, after four years as NPR's Midwest correspondent.