Tax credits for schools proposed

ATLANTA - Public and private schools could benefit from an education reform bill introduced Monday by a House Republican leader.

The legislation, sponsored by Rep. Earl Ehrhart, R-Powder Springs, would allow individuals or businesses in Georgia to receive a tax credit for donating to either of two nonprofit organizations the bill would create.

The Student Scholarship Organization would provide private school scholarships to two groups of students: those from low-income families and students with certain disabilities.

"Their parents can't just go out and leverage a scholarship to a local private school,'' Ehrhart said. "Maybe their public school is failing or needs improvement. This empowers parents ... gives them a funding mechanism to get a scholarship.''

The other nonprofit Ehrhart's bill would launch, the Educational Improvement Organization, would provide grants to public schools for programs considered outside the basics of student instruction, including art, music, foreign language and pre-kindergarten.

Many school districts across Georgia have struggled to fund those programs in recent years. Foreign language classes have been frequent targets of state budget cuts, while some districts have moved to cancel pre-K for lack of money.

"This will benefit both private and public schools,'' Ehrhart said. "I am excited about all of the children who will be better off because of it.''

Portions of Ehrhart's bill are similar to legislation introduced by Senate President Pro Tempore Eric Johnson, R-Savannah.

Johnson's bill, which passed the Senate 31-23 two weeks ago, would offer parents of disabled children taxpayer-funded scholarships to private schools.

Opponents of the Senate bill criticized it as the latest attempt by Republicans to push private school vouchers through the General Assembly.

Organizations representing teachers and school administrators have long opposed vouchers as taking money away from public schools.

On Monday, Herb Garrett, executive director of the Georgia School Superintendents Association, said Ehrhart's bill is still a vouchers bill, despite its public schools component.

"We have a standing position against the use of taxpayer money for private schools,'' Garrett said.

Under Ehrhart's bill, individuals who donate to the scholarship fund could claim a tax credit of up to $500 per year, up to $1,000 for married couples filing jointly.

Those who donate to the public schools improvement fund could claim a credit of up to $250 per year for individuals, or $500 per year for married couples filing jointly.

For now, Ehrhart said, the two funds combined would be limited to $50 million.

He said that's roughly an average of what other states with similar programs are offering.

"It was a good start,'' he said.