Bill: Widen Georgia aid for students to go to private school

Supporters of broadening a Georgia program that pays for special education students to attend private schools say changes would meet its original mission, while opponents say it’s another attack on the state’s public schools.

The Senate Education and Youth Committee heard testimony Wednesday on Senate Bill 386, but did not take a vote.

The measure would require Georgia’s scholarship program to grant money not only to students who have individualized education plans, as state law now says, but also to students with accommodation plans under section 504 of the federal Rehabilitation Act. Students with 504 plans may be performing on grade level but need some kind of help.

“This program, as it is today, is not inclusive of its original intent,” said Republican state Sen. Greg Dolezal of Cumming.

Opponents, though, note 504 plans can cover accommodations for even a passing physical ailment such as a broken arm. Sen. Renee Unterman, the Buford Republican sponsoring the bill, indicated that she’s willing to tighten who would be eligible.

The state Department of Education couldn’t immediately say how many students have an individualized education plan on Wednesday. Those are mandated under a separate federal law, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Georgia is collecting data on the number of children with 504 plans for the first time. Georgia, though reported almost 200,000 students used special education services last year, or about 11% of all students statewide. Just under 5,000 students used the current special needs scholarship program, with the state spending $33 million, or an average of $6,293 per student.

The program’s recipients are heavily concentrated in metro Atlanta. Dozens of counties in south Georgia have no recipients.

Unterman, who is running as a Republican for Congress in a Gwinnett County district, said that the small share of special education students now using the program proved that public schools should have nothing to fear.

“The public school system was going to collapse,” was how she described the original reaction. “It never came to fruition.”

But others say they don’t want to expand eligibility, saying there’s no statistical proof that outcomes are better in private schools and noting that private school students give up federal legal protections they have in public schools. Georgia’s current program collects no data on academic outcomes. They fear the expansion is another step toward a universal voucher program that would provide private school subsidies to any student.

“Is this really a means to support special needs students or to expand vouchers in the state of Georgia?” asked Sen. Freddie Powell Sims, a Democrat from Dawson.

Now, students have to have an individualized education plan, meaning they have to spend at least some time in a public school before they can transfer elsewhere. The bill would also allow children who receive public special needs preschool services to transfer. Melissa Fanzo, who lives near Gainesville in Forsyth County, said it was unfair to make her sons spend time in public schools that weren’t doing enough to help them.

“There is help out there, but he has to wait in a failing system for a year to receive it,” Fonzo said.