June 26, 2017

Victory for school choice in Georgia

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Today, the Georgia Supreme Court issued a ruling that will help secure the freedom of students and their parents to choose the schools that are right for them. At stake in Gaddy v. Georgia Department of Revenue was the state’s immensely popular tax credit scholarship program, which enables people to earn tax credits in exchange for making donations to private school choice charities. The charities in turn award scholarships to students, whose parents may use them towards tuition and fees of the private school of their choosing, including religious schools.

Some people don’t want parents to have that autonomy, and fight strenuously to maintain the traditional public school system where a child’s school is determined not by their educational needs, but by their home address. A group of anti-school choice activists challenged Georgia’s program, asserting, among other things, that it violated the Establishment Clause of the Georgia Constitution, which prohibits the direct or indirect use of public funds in aid of religious institutions.

This challenge failed for one simple reason: the tax credit scholarship program never uses public funds. Money is voluntarily donated by private individuals to private organizations. It is then issued to students, whose parents decide where the money is spent. The government isn’t involved in the process. And even though people receive credits against their tax liability, that is simply money that never enters the public coffers in the first place. So because public funds are never involved, the program does not implicate the Establishment Clause.

The lack of public funds in the scholarship program is also why the Court held that the activists didn’t even have legal standing to challenge the program in the first place. A taxpayer cannot claim any injury if the program they are challenging does not appropriate public funds.

This is a victory for good sense and sound public policy. As we argued in our friend of the court brief, if the Court had ruled that the program used public funds, that could open up other tax benefits—like tax deductions for contributions to religious organizations—to constitutional scrutiny.

Most importantly, school choice programs like this empower families to have control over their children’s educational future. This inspires greater parental involvement in all aspects of schooling. Research shows that school choice improves educational outcomes, in terms of test scores and graduation rates, and it even saves taxpayers money. Georgia joins a growing number of states where school choice programs provide these many benefits.

Congratulations to our friends at the Institute for Justice, which helped defend the scholarship program on behalf of four Georgia families. Also, thanks to Georgia attorney Jay Wall, who aided PLF in the filing of our amicus brief in the Georgia Supreme Court.

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