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SAVANNAH –– Last week, The Current published an analysis of Georgia’s $600 million program that allows taxpayers to fund scholarships for private school education. 

Lisa Kelly, President and Executive Director, Georgia GOAL Scholarship Program, Inc. (goalscholarship.org)

This two-month investigation found that the policy has fallen short of its promised outcomes, mainly through a lack of financial oversight of the organizations that disburse scholarship funds and an absence of rules about whether higher-income or lower-income families should benefit more from the program.

Shortly after publication of The Current’s story, the state’s largest school scholarship organization released a statement calling on the Georgia Legislature to amend the law to require more transparency and enhanced rules to ensure the program better serves lower-income Georgia families. 

Since 2008 this organization, Georgia GOAL Scholarship Program, has distributed more than $227 million dollars in tax money for private school scholarships.

The Current asked Georgia GOAL President Lisa Kelly questions about what motivated her organization’s call for legislative action, and her reaction to our story. Her answers are below:

THE CURRENT: What is GOAL’s view about the success of Georgia’s School Scholarship program? Does your organization believe the law has lived up to its promised goals?

KELLY: The GOAL Scholarship Program is having a profound influence on the lives of students throughout Georgia. Please refer to GOAL’s most recent Annual Report for many student and parent testimonials about the positive impact of the program. https://www.goalscholarship.org/docLib/20200813_20192021AnnualReport.pdf

To the second part of your question, yes. Only 18 states have K-12 tuition tax credit programs, with Georgia being one of the largest. The law provides families greater access to educational opportunities that otherwise would not be available to them. Also, because the average scholarship award is lower than the average state per pupil cost to educate students in public schools, the law is saving Georgia taxpayers millions of dollars annually.

GOAL states on its website that through May 31, 2020, your organization has awarded 41,229 scholarships worth $160.8 million to 16,980 students. Over 50% of those scholarships have been awarded to families with an AGI of under $24,000.

Additionally, the organization states that 45.74% of GOAL scholarship awards have been provided to minority recipients. 

Can you describe GOAL’s strategy in attracting and finding candidates from low-income and minority families to take part in the organization’s scholarship program?

KELLY: GOAL works very closely with its participating schools to identify eligible low- and middle-income students. In their communities, the participating schools publicize the existence of the program and, in most cases, have information about the availability of the scholarships on their websites. 

GOAL also contributes a portion of its administration fees each year to a REACH-GOAL Fund, the purpose of which is to award scholarships to students from families having very low household incomes. In addition, for many years, GOAL has partnered with bp to operate a bp-GOAL Scholarship Fund, which identifies and awards scholarships to students from low-income families in communities throughout Georgia.

Did GOAL play any role in crafting the original 2008 school choice legislation in Georgia [GA HB1133], or any of the subsequent amendments? 

If so, what has that role been? If not, why does GOAL now want to help craft new amendments for the law, as per the organization’s press release issued Monday?

KELLY: In 2008, upon passage of the law, to ensure that there would be a student scholarship organization (“SSO”) that understood the importance of operating with a high level of competency, transparency, and accountability, those responsible for securing passage requested GOAL’s founder, Jim Kelly, to start a SSO. Jim is a tax and education law attorney who authored the Georgia Charter Schools Act of 1998 and has authored several U.S. Supreme Court amicus curiae briefs in support of educational choice programs. 

Since 2008, GOAL has been at the forefront of informing lawmakers about specific ways to improve the law, including provisions designed to improve transparency, governance, and accountability; to set a timeframe within which SSOs must obligate donated funds to scholarship recipients; to enhance state reporting requirements; and to encourage SSOs to consider the financial need of scholarship applicants.

The Current’s investigation into the school scholarship program revealed a lack of meaningful oversight over school scholarship organizations. What are GOAL’s views about the criteria the state has to license school scholarship organizations? Are those criteria adequate, and if not, why not?

KELLY: In 2008, lawmakers wisely passed a K-12 tuition tax credit law that empowered SSOs to operate without undue government regulation or interference with the educational mission of the participating private schools. 

During the past 12 years, the best practices implemented by GOAL and some other SSOs have put market pressure on the entire community of SSOs to conform to the letter and spirit of the law. 

All SSOs must be tax-exempt, non-profit organizations governed by a Board of Directors having at least three members. The SSOs must file independent financial audits with the Georgia Department of Revenue, which must verify that the SSO is complying with all requirements of Georgia law. (Editor note: The Current‘s investigation revealed that the Department of Revenue does not verify all of the requirements.)

GOAL believes the law could be strengthened by requiring the DOR to publish the SSO audit reports on its website, as it would provide lawmakers and the public with the opportunity to analyze the practices and performance of each SSO.

GOAL states on its web site that 152 of Georgia’s “best” K-12 private schools participate in your organization’s scholarship program. 

What standards or criteria does GOAL have in its decision to work with its participating schools? Has GOAL ever declined to partner with any private school in Georgia? If so, what were GOAL’s reasons?

KELLY: Since its inception, GOAL has had very high standards relating to the manner in which its participating private schools review possible scholarship applicants; recommend scholarship applicants and scholarship award amounts to GOAL; and manage the scholarship funds designated for use by GOAL for students attending their schools. 

Each year, GOAL requires that its participating schools submit proof of their continued eligibility under state law, including current proof of their accreditation. 

A GOAL Advisory Committee of representatives from some of its participating schools have helped develop best practices. In very few isolated cases has GOAL declined to partner with a private school and has only done so when the interested school did not qualify under state law or did not seem willing or able to adhere to GOAL’s high standards.

Read the full investigation and analysis HERE.