Georgia’s school-choice program draws legal challenge

Part 112 of 111 in the series Educating America

By Mary C. Tillotson |

Robin Lamp calls herself “more than just a PTO parent.” She made a point to be involved in her daughters’ education, learning about the curriculum and working behind the scenes.

Changes to the math program caused her daughter Haley, then in middle school, to struggle.

SCHOOL-CHOICE: Robin Lamp is grateful for the opportunities her daughters, Haley and Hannah, have had through Georgia’s tax-credit scholarship program.

“I had to get tutors, and we were barely keeping our heads above water. I had many conferences with math teachers,” Lamp said.

Lamp is a single mom working four or five jobs a year, some of them seasonal, to support herself and her two daughters. She doesn’t use any government support, she said.

“I take their education very, very seriously. My view of it is, it is my responsibility to educate my children, and I use all the resources available to me — public school systems, whatever,” she said. “I didn’t know that I had a choice. I didn’t know I could do anything other than homeschool her.”

She learned about Georgia’s tax-credit scholarship program through a friend. She couldn’t afford private school tuition on her earnings, but the program helped offset that cost.

“I asked her, ‘Are you willing to leave your public school and friends and go here?’”

Haley was preparing for ninth grade. She will graduate this spring in the top 15 of her class and plans to study nursing at Clayton State College, where she’s been accepted.

“They have changed my daughter’s life, and how can I ever say thank you for that?” Lamp said. “I can’t. That’s giving her life support when she was dying academically. I am just so thankful.”

Lamp’s younger daughter, Hannah, is attending the same private school on scholarship.

Others in Georgia don’t see the program in the same light. The Southern Education Foundation for years has pushed for changes to the program, said Katherine Dunn, program officer. The foundation recently helped a group of plaintiffs file a lawsuit, hoping to have the program declared unconstitutional.

“While we work to improve the program, it’s sort of at the point where we think it’s time to initiate litigation,” Dunn said.

Dunn said SEF would like to see increased testing in private schools and tighter regulations on curriculum and teacher qualifications.

Testing would be one way to measure scholarship students’ progress, she said.

“We’d like the schools to be held accountable for providing better education than the public schools do for these students,” she said.

Scholarship granting nonprofits need more accountability, too, she said.

“There are constitutional issues with how the program is set up — tax credits versus tax deductions, and organizations being private that distribute these monies,” she said.

SEF is not opposed in principle to school choice, she said, but before the state implements a school-choice program, traditional public schools should be funded at higher levels, and these measures for the tax-credit scholarship should be in place, she said.

Scholarship money does not come directly out of the education budget, but the tax credits result in Georgians paying less money in taxes overall, which indirectly cuts into the public education budget, she said.

The Institute for Justice is planning to intervene in the lawsuit, representing parents – including Lamp. IJ often represents parents in school-choice litigation.

“The claims are the same claims we’ve seen over and over again,” said Tim Keller, IJ’s lead attorney on the case.

The money going to tax-credit scholarships isn’t public money, Keller said — it’s private money, donations by individuals and corporations.

“The other claim seems to be that somehow this program is impinging on the state’s responsibility to fund public education. But even if this money was collected by the state — and that’s a big ‘if’ … the Legislature has complete authority to do what it wants with the money,” he said.

Other state programs have just as much right to say they’re underfunded, Keller said — and state lawmakers, not tax-credit programs, decide how that money is allocated.

In addition, Keller said, the state’s constitution explicitly allows public funds to be used for scholarships, referring to Article 8, Section 7, Paragraph 1.

Lamp said she’s happy to participate in the lawsuit because the program has helped her daughter so much.

“I want to protect school choice. I want to protect education for children that the public school system just doesn’t work for. I want to make parents aware that you need to do what’s best for your child sometimes instead of going along with the flow,” she said. “What my family has gained from this program is so much more than I can ever lose by being a part of this legal process.”

In the meantime, she’s looking forward to graduation.

“My daughter’s graduating. I’m one of those emotional mamas that has a senior who’s going to walk across that stage in a few weeks. I’m just so thankful that I was made aware that I had a choice,” she said.

She described herself as “pro-education.”

“I still pay my taxes and support the public school system. I pay my part of the private school tuition. … I don’t think we as a society need to just be so focused on ‘it has to be one way.’ In the classroom, the teachers are being trained that children learn in all different ways, visual and audio, whatever. As a school system, we need to realize that children learn and need to be educated in different ways.”

NURSING STUDENT: Haley Lamp poses with her mother, Robin Lamp, at her graduation party. Haley is looking forward to studying nursing in the fall.

“I’m frustrated that people want to take this away. To me, that’s like a burglar coming into my home and wanting to rob me of something that’s very valuable to me. I’m very upset about that.”

Contact Mary C. Tillotson at