By Curt Yeomans
Clayton County parents soon will have an option to take their children out of the county's troubled public school system and put them in local, accredited private schools with financial assistance from private corporations.
Clayton schools are facing a crisis which could result in a loss of accreditation, if nine Southern Association of Colleges and Schools' mandates for improvement are not met by Sept. 1.
On May 14, Gov. Sonny Perdue signed House Bill 1133 into law. The new law lets companies and taxpayers invest money in private school scholarships in struggling school systems.
School choice supporters, such as the Indiana-based Friedman Foundation for Education Choice, hailed Perdue's actions because it gives lower-income families in Georgia a choice about whether their children would attend a troubled public school, or a private school. In February, the foundation held a press conference in the state capitol to promote House Bill 1133.
"The old idea of limiting school choice based on family income is coming to an end," said Robert Enlow, the foundation's executive director, on May 14. "The argument that freedom is only good for some students just doesn't make it anymore."
There are 23 school-choice programs in the United States, ranging from Iowa to Vermont to Georgia, according to the Friedman Foundation. The new scholarship program in Georgia is similar to one which was established by the General Assembly in 2007 for students with disabilities.
State Rep. David Casas (R-Lilburn), who introduced House Bill 1133 and helped to get it passed, could not be reached for comment on Friday.
The scholarships will be distributed by non-profit, student-scholarship organizations officially recognized by the Georgia Department of Education. At least 90 percent of the money provided must go into the scholarships, according to the law.
The new law also stipulates that such an organization must "conduct an audit of its accounts by an independent certified public accountant within 120 days after the completion of the student scholarship organization's fiscal year, and provide such audit to the Department of Revenue ..." The organizations are also required to provide the Department of Education with annual reports on the scholarships.
The student-scholarship organization must keep the money for the scholarships in a separate account from the money used to cover its operating expenses. Individual taxpayers can qualify for a tax credit worth up to $1,000, while a married couple qualifies for a credit worth as much as $2,500, if they put money into the scholarships. The credit cannot exceed the taxpayer's income tax liability, however.
There will be a $50 million per year cap on the amount of tax credits given out by tax officials. The credits will be available on a "first come, first served basis," according to the law.