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Georgia charter schoolGrowing concern about the safety and quality of education in our public schools has led many parents to put their children in private schools. But what about poor families who lack opportunities to pursue better options?

To ensure underprivileged children have access to more education options, Georgia and several other states have passed private school scholarship programs. However, according to a recent New York Times story, some private schools are using these funds to discount tuition for current students instead of offering scholarships for students from low-income families.

More Tax Breaks for the Wealthy

Georgia attracts funding for its scholarship program by offering dollar-for-dollar tax credits to each family for donations up to $2,500. As a result, funds that would otherwise be owed to the state are redirected to private schools.

Lawmakers argued that these tax breaks would provide scholarships for students whose families cannot afford to send them to private school. However, not all scholarship programs seem to follow the same mission.

  • According to The New York Times, an administrator at Gwinnett Christian Academy told families that most of the money raised by these donations would be redirected back to the families of those who made the donations and that only "a very small percentage of that money" would be set aside for needy students.
  • A Southern Education Foundation report found that metropolitan areas containing most of the private schools covered by the scholarship program saw private school enrollment increase by only 0.3% from 2007 to 2009 (the year before and the year after the program started). In the rest of the state, private school enrollment increased by only 1.3%.
  • Some parents in Georgia took advantage of a language loophole -- the use of the word "enrolled" rather than "attending" -- in Georgia's scholarship bill in order to qualify for scholarship funds, according to the Southern Education Foundation report. This loophole allowed families to enroll their children in the public schools, even as they attended private schools, thus making them eligible for scholarship money.

Accountability Concerns

Some argue that these scandals are anomalies and that the scholarship fund is fulfilling its stated purpose of helping the needy. However, there are no data to support or refute that claim. And, Georgia's law doesn't include income limits to help ensure the scholarship fund fulfills its purpose of helping needy students.

One useful way to measure the program's success would be to determine how many students switched to private schools after the creation of the program who would have been unable to do so without the scholarship money. However, when The New York Times requested this information, a policy analyst for the Georgia Department of Education indicated that they did not collect that data and did not regulate the use of those scholarship funds.

The issue is further complicated by the way these tax credits blur the line between public and private money. The funds are being collected and distributed by private foundations rather than the state, making it difficult to challenge their use from a constitutional standpoint. Funds that would have gone into public coffers instead go into private hands, and citizens have a limited ability to determine the appropriate use of what would otherwise have been state money.

Growing Movement

While the Times report highlights the scholarship programs in Georgia, Pennsylvania, and Arizona, other states have implemented similar programs, and several others are thinking about jumping on the bandwagon.

Concern about the quality of education in our public schools is understandable, but the question remains -- do these private school scholarship programs fix the underlying problems with our children's education?

Motley Fool contributor M. Joy Hayes, Ph.D. is the principal at ethics consulting firm Courageous Ethics. She doesn't own shares of any of the companies mentioned. Follow @JoyofEthics on Twitter.

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Jay and Monica

Does this writer even have kids in school? No clue as to what is going on in our public schools. Once my 3rd grader came home from school several years ago and told me how excited she was to be able to help "teach" her classmates English for half of the school day- I knew then and there that our public school days were over. Mind you, I continue to pay taxes to support the ' neighborhood" school that my daughter will never use and may in addition a large tuition bill for her private school- but at least I know she is getting a FULL days worth of education and not some watered down, lets all feel good and meet in the middle, mediocrity that is being dished out at our public schools these days. Disgraceful.............

July 10 2012 at 1:43 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

The AOL writer's problem is that at worst, conservatives are getting their own tax money back, instead of the Democratic party simply stealing it from them and handing it to its own party members is in all other govt programs. But frankly, I don't believe anything written these days by propagandists anyway. Who knows what is really happening here.

July 09 2012 at 3:46 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

mabye we wouldnt have to worry about it if the dept of education and teachers unions would actually teach students instead of wasting money.....

June 12 2012 at 4:52 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to sgtdjusmc's comment

IMagine when I was born back in 1955 we were number one! Dept of education comes along and since then we have steadily gone down. I think we are like 24, 25 now. How did we let this happen and God forbid you walk in to a public school in Florida you will run with your kids as fast as you can. NO animal would be safe there. Its pathetic.

July 03 2012 at 1:12 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Why does the lefty communist media like AOL/HuffPuff constantly attack the middle classes in favor of Welfare beneficiaries?

These caring responsible hard-working families are paying for the education of their own children as well as being forced to pay for others, and still the twisted-lefties have the unmitigated gaul to call that "Twisted".

HuffPuff/AOL is truly "Twisted"!

(Oh ... should mention: the author, young Miss Hayes is an "academic" with a with a bizarre "Ph.D." from UOF, in "Ethics"! Sounds like a degree in sophomoric socialist pomposity. LOL!)

June 09 2012 at 11:04 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply

Twisted Tax Laws Let Private Schools Rob the Poor to Aid the Rich

That's the GOP way

June 09 2012 at 7:23 PM Report abuse -4 rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to Somey's comment

Just like Michelle's 10 million dollar vacation tab she ran up. Rob the taxpayers to aid rich people like the Obamas. That's the democrat way

The Obama's sedn their kids to private school.

Obamas a fiasco. Someholes a simpleton

June 11 2012 at 2:12 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to democracks0's comment

oh come on... you know the Obama's vacation is not paid for by the taxpayers. I don't agree with a lot of his policies, but I won't make a totally baseless claim like that. The Obama family has to pay for the entire expense of their vacation, including the additional secret service protection that is necessary.

June 14 2012 at 11:21 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down
Jay and Monica

Just a reminder, you can't rob the poor when we have given them all of the money in the first place that pays for their education. Would be nice if they spent some money on students other than those in the bottom 10%- go check your facts as I am sick and tired of giving my hard earned tax dollars to complainers and those who feel entitled for sitting on their rears while the rest of us work to support you........,

July 10 2012 at 1:46 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

If Lauryn Hill paid her taxes, there would be no problem.

June 09 2012 at 1:28 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

Why does the lefty media constantly attack the middle classes in favor of Welfare beneficiaries?

These caring responsible hard-working families are paying for the education of their own children as well as being forced to pay for others, and still the twisted-lefties have the unmitigated gaul to call that "Twisted".

HuffPuff/AOL are truly "Twisted"!

June 09 2012 at 12:34 AM Report abuse +4 rate up rate down Reply

Private schools in the South? Well, I guess the state funds crayons

June 08 2012 at 6:19 PM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to smart8001's comment


June 11 2012 at 2:13 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

Mixing private funds and public funds is always a disaster (see housing bubble). The government should step out of the whole scholarship/tax break field, and let the tuition bubble deflate. Otherwise, that bubble is going to pop.

June 08 2012 at 2:46 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

More Huff articles in support of Obama's class warfare agenda. Promote merit pay for the great teachers and dump the underachievers - that's real world tactics. Get results and the tax payers will support pay increases. The Teachers Union and their policies do more to obstruct our kids and schools from improving than any perceived tax inequality (see drdeweyjnk).

June 08 2012 at 1:47 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply