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School choice backers tout benefits of scholarships

By Curt Yeomans

cyeomans@news-daily.com

Princess Wooten knows some of her kindergarten students at Lee Street Elementary may not come back to school in Clayton County next year.

Wooten said a bill pertaining to school-choice, tax-credit scholarships, which is currently being reviewed in the state House of Representatives, could be popular with Clayton County parents. The teacher's belief is based on a Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) recommendation to revoke the accreditation of Clayton County schools.

"There is so much going on at the top right now," instructor Wooten said. "In order for parents to feel good about what's going on right now, they might feel the need to move their children out of the [county's] schools."

The bill, which is under review by the state House of Representatives' Ways and Means Committee, would establish a program where Georgia taxpayers could elect to have a credit against their taxes, which would go into a fund for private school scholarships for students who are enrolled in poor-performing public schools.

A single person would qualify for a $1,000 tax credit, while a married couple would qualify for a $2,500 tax credit. There would be a $50 million cap set on how much could be in the scholarship fund at any given time. The scholarships would be administered by non-profit scholarship organizations, which are recognized by the Georgia Department of Education.

The money collected for the scholarships would not be spent on other items, which are unrelated to a student's education, said Robert Enlow, the executive director of the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice.

"Every dollar that is raised for a scholarship goes to that scholarship," said Enlow.

The bill is being sponsored by state Reps. David Casas (R-Lilburn), Earl Ehrhart (R-Powder Springs), Jeff Lewis (R-White), Edward Lindsey (R-Atlanta), John Lunsford (R-McDonough), and Ron Stephens (R-Savannah). Hearings on the bill are scheduled for next week.

Enlow held a press conference at the state capitol on Tuesday to release the findings of a study on how much tax-credit scholarships would save local school systems. The organization concluded the scholarships would save about $94 million, or roughly $6,600 per student, for Georgia school systems.

However, the figures are only estimates of how much less money a school system would have to spend to transport, feed and educate students, if there is a lower enrollment in the district.

In a statement released by the Friedman Foundation before the press conference, the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, which was a partner in the Friedman Foundation's study, cautioned the projected savings were not set in stone. The exact amount of financial impact would depend on how many students are enrolled in the program. The figures included in the study breakdown to about 14,242 pupils.

According to the report detailing the study's findings, U.S. Census Bureau data showed there are about 128,000 Georgia children enrolled in private schools, while roughly 36,000 students are home-schooled, and about 26,000 pupils attend charter schools. The report also said private school enrollment in Georgia increased by 25 percent from the period from 1997 to 2006, while public school enrollment increased by 16 percent during the same period.