As an organization committed to the responsible implementation of the tax credit scholarship program, we were disappointed by Tuesday's attack in The New York Times. While we acknowledge that improvements to the program are needed to ensure that the spirit, intent and letter of the law in Georgia are fairly and rigorously applied, we disagree with the broader characterizations of the program.
As Ms. Saul noted, our organization, Arete Scholars Fund, focuses exclusively on low-income children. The need-based scholarships - which are awarded directly to families that need them most and may be used at any accredited school in Georgia - are expanding access to high-quality educational options in a state that ranks 46th in graduation rates.
In only two years, Arete has awarded more than 1,400 scholarships to students from families with an average household size of five and average unadjusted gross income of $29,000 per year. Parents frequently cite a myriad of benefits, including improved academic performance, increased love for learning, greater student and parental satisfaction, and better behavior.
Nevertheless, Student Scholarship Organizations (SSOs) in Georgia are not monolithic, and there are indeed some bad apples. For our part, from Arete's inception in 2010 we have been a vocal supporter of greater standards of accountability, transparency, and fiscal responsibility. Also, we have met with the Southern Education Foundation and supported its petition to clearly define the current enrollment statute.
In fact, our concern for the integrity of the statewide program led us to create Arete and model an approach that addresses many of the broad criticisms.
Focus on low-income families
Arete maintains rigid eligibility requirements based on the income guidelines for the federal free and reduced lunch program ̶ a demographic that research repeatedly shows underachieves academically. Families must reapply each year to verify income and need.
Empowerment of parents
Another persistent criticism is that donors and schools are making self-protecting decisions about how scholarship money is distributed. In response, Arete awards scholarships directly to families and empowers parents to choose a school that works best for their children. Scholarships may be used at any accredited, eligible, and participating school in Georgia , and the scholarship always follows the child. This creates accountability for schools as parents can “vote with their feet.”
As supporters of true parental empowerment, we recognize that one size does not fit all in education. Consequently, Arete stands in strong support of public, private, charter, virtual and home schools as vital to ensuring all children have access to a quality education.
Fiscal responsibility and transparency
Finally, Arete has instituted operational standards far beyond what the law requires. With a maximum award amount based on the state public school funding formula, every Arete scholarship guarantees substantial savings to Georgia taxpayers. Additionally, while Georgia permits scholarship organizations to retain 10% of contributions for operations, Arete uses less while submitting to annual independent audits with published results.
It is that sort of governance that has made us the partner of choice for a growing coalition of world-class corporations that resonate with our mission, companies like The Home Depot, Dollar General, Equifax, Walgreens, Waste Management, Balfour Beatty Construction, and others.
We agree the program in Georgia needs improvement, but let's support the organizations like Arete that are leading by example and working with lawmakers to make the program the best it can be for the citizens of Georgia.
Let's also remember that even with growing pains and imperfections, this is an initiative that is making a real difference in the lives of real kids, kids that know little of political debates, tax credit caps, and public-private distinctions. And at a maximum statewide investment of $51.5 million in 2012 - or less than 0.6% of the total state spend for education - we believe that's a small price to pay for new opportunities for children who need them most.
Thu, May 24, 2012