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Capping scholarships, capping opportunity
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Carlethia Ingram easily could have become one more lost teenager. Her mother died four days after the birth of her youngest sister. For 10 years, Carlethia and two sisters lived with their grandmother in Savannah public housing until Barbara Ingram passed away last year.

“When their grandmother died we kept them,” said Anthony Phillips. “No court has ever said they belong to you. It just happened.”

Phillips and his wife, Donna, are retired U.S. Army officers. He owns a logistics company and serves on the World Trade Center Savannah board of directors. Donna Phillips is a dentist and board member at a small Christian academy that was a large part of Carlethia’s life through ninth grade, when she transferred to Savannah Christian Prep.

All three sisters — Carlethia, Parisian and Brandis — were able to attend private Christian schools, in part, because they received scholarships from the Arete Scholars Fund that covered tuition and other costs.

Arete and about 30 other organizations participate in the state’s tax credit scholarship initiative that allows individuals and corporations to take a state income tax dollar-for-dollar credit up to maximum allowable amounts by donating funds to help students attend eligible private schools. The General Assembly created the tax credit scholarship program in 2008.

Public support for this school choice approach has overwhelmed the program, especially the past three years. The 2012 tax credit cap of $58 million was reached in mid-August. This year’s budget cap was reached in the first three weeks.

The cap on donations and the turbo-charged calendar has frustrated thousands who were unable to contribute to the participating scholarship organizations.

“Our problem is when the fiscal year ends for corporations,” said Arete Executive Director Derek Monjure.

“Some of the bigger donors we have, their fiscal year ends in January. They’re closing their books, haven’t done their tax estimations yet and the cap’s already been met.”

Reality has tempered expectations this year: “It kills me,” Monjure said about Arete’s inability to fund even last year’s number of students served.

While Lisa Kelly, president of the Georgia GOAL Scholarship Program, the largest student scholarship organization in Georgia, understands the difficult position created by the early expiration of the cap poses for a few large corporations, she is more concerned about the thousands of individual taxpayers and owners of smaller “pass-through” entities who want to participate in the program.

“Taxpayers love this program and the Legislature should be considering how to empower even more individuals to support the educational choices of parents from throughout the state,” Kelly says.

GOAL and Arete focus their scholarship awards primarily on low-income students throughout Georgia. In 2013, Arete awarded 720 scholarships worth $4 million and GOAL awarded 3,676 scholarships worth $13.1 million.

“At one time we had 80 percent of our students on the scholarship,” said Michelle Moore, an executive office staff member at Ramah Junior Academy.

But this year, scholarship reductions could mean a loss of perhaps 20 percent of Ramah’s returning students.

The cost to attend Ramah ranges from $3,845 for a pre-K student to $5,460 for students who are in ninth or 10th grade. Without an increase in the scholarship cap, many of these children will have lost their best hope for a good education.

“Most of the parents can’t afford it,” said Willie Walker, Ramah’s new principal who has been on the job since the middle of July.

“We’ve tried our best to give them a major discount so they can still bring their children to the school. Some of them still can’t afford it. We want them here. We know they will do well here because they’ve done well in the past.”

The $58 million cap on donations to scholarship organizations will not change unless the General Assembly and the state’s executive leadership decide it should change.

Only 13,000 of Georgia’s 1.8 million K-12 children receive tax credit scholarship assistance. The statewide average scholarship amount in 2012 (latest data available) was $3,388.

One idea to help the many students who saw their scholarships reduced or eliminated this year is to increase the cap from $58 million to $100 million. About 10,000 more students could be served.

Tax credit program supporters say their goal is clear: Improve school choice options.

“Families are in educational distress in our state,” said Kelly at Georgia GOAL.

“Why should only a small fraction of low and middle-income parents be given access to better opportunities for their children? When a program is working it grows in popularity. That is happening here, with taxpayers, with excellent private schools and with deserving families. Let’s grow this wonderful program.”

As I was nearly finished writing this article, my phone rang. It was Willie Walker at Ramah Junior Academy. He asked whether I knew anyone who might be able to pay registration fees for some of their students.

“They can’t afford the fee,” Walker said. We shared an idea and he began making calls, looking for Samaritans who would pay registration fees for students they don’t even know.

Mike Klein is editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, an independent, state-focused think tank that proposes market-oriented approaches to public policy to improve the lives of Georgians.