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Tax credit boosts local private schools
Donations fund scholarships for students transferring from public school
Lakeview Academy students Devon Zwald, right, and Mary Lipold work in study hall earlier this week. - photo by Tom Reed

A 2-year-old tax provision is placing millions of dollars into private school scholarship programs across the state, including Lakeview Academy, the largest private school in Hall County.

The program provides a dollar-for-dollar tax credit to people or corporations that donate to scholarship funds for a specific school. The credit is a maximum $1,000 per individual and $2,500 per household, said Valerie Butts, admissions and financial aid director for Lakeview.

The tax credit has been a major boost to Lakeview Academy as well as several other local private schools. Lakeview added thousands of dollars to its financial aid programs, allowing it to offer paid tuition to public school students seeking to transfer.

"This is only our second year, and last year we collected $61,000 in two months," Butts said. "Now we have a full year to share our story with people about participating. We would like to triple it."

The donations are passed through nonprofit student scholarship organizations that partner with schools.

Lakeview uses the Georgia Greater Opportunities for Access to Learning program, the biggest of the scholarship-awarding programs in the state. The organization said the number of schools receiving scholarships this year was 91, up 56 from the year before.

North Georgia Christian School works with Gainesville-based Pay It Forward Scholarships. The school raised about $250,000 last year for about 40 scholarships. Tuition costs for the school range from $5,000 to $7,500, depending on grade level.

"It certainly helps with families who need assistance to attend the school of their choice," said Frank McKay, director of development at North Georgia Christian. "It improves diversity on campus."

However, the tax credit does have controversy. Critics say it deprives the state of revenue.

Gubernatorial candidates are divided on the issue.

Democrat Roy Barnes said he would work to repeal the law if elected, while Republican Nathan Deal said he supports it.

Pay It Forward Director Cary Sinnett argues the tax credit gives parents a choice about education, as scholarships eliminate the barrier of tuition costs.

"These programs really help out when public education isn't the perfect fit for a child," he said.

He added that the program represents less than one-half of 1 percent of the education budget for Georgia.

Butts said the program is slowly expanding enrollment at Lakeview, but school officials aimed to be conservative for the first year. Scholarships awarded pay for a child's entire career at the academy.

"When a family receives a GOAL scholarship, the family knows they will have it every year," Butts said.

By law, the only criteria for scholarship recipients is that they currently attend a public school. Butts said Georgia GOAL also released voluntary guidelines that recommend schools offer the scholarships to low- or middle-income students.

Donations are capped at $50 million annually, and in 2009 totaled about $25 million. Officials expect that figure will rise to between $35 million to $40 million this year.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.