Bill: Widen tuition aid for Georgia special needs students

Supporters of a Georgia program that pays for special education students to attend private schools are trying anew to get lawmakers to broaden eligibility, while critics say there’s not enough oversight of the spending and that public schools shouldn’t lose state money while under financial stress.

The Senate Education and Youth Committee heard testimony Monday on Senate Bill 47. Committee Chairman Chuck Payne, a Dalton Republican, said the committee is likely to vote on the bill next week. Last year, a similar measure passed the Senate but died in the House.

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 and students with a diagnosis of a specific disability. Students with 504 plans may be performing on grade level but need some kind of help.

Sen. Steve Gooch, the Dahlonega Republican who is sponsoring the bill, said his own son is a high school senior who has struggled with learning disabilities. He said that has shown him that more parents need help.

"I would sure hate to keep that opportunity from existing for other parents," Gooch said.

About 200,000 of Georgia’s 1.8 million public school students have individualized education plans, state Deputy Superintendent Tiffany Taylor told the committee Monday. Taylor said about 58,000 more students have 504 plans.

Hannah Heck, a lawyer working with the American Federation for Children, which supports giving parents state money to spend on private schools, said students with 504 plans should also be eligible.

"They would clearly fall under what we think of as special needs," Heck said.

About 275 schools in about 50 counties are currently eligible to receive funds. Those schools are heavily concentrated in metro Atlanta. Students get an amount of money equal to what the state provides in aid, but not local property tax dollars. That amount averages more than $6,000, but can vary widely.

Others, though, say that with public schools having suffered budget cuts last year that are only being partially restored, it’s the wrong time to channel any money away from public schools.

"We spend $35 million a year on this program for a small number of students while the remainder of our students in public schools have experienced cuts," Lisa Morgan, president of the Georgia Association of Educators, told the committee. "Please, let’s focus on the 1.8 million, all of our students, and not a small minority."

Opponents say the current program also doesn’t do enough to track how students and schools in the program perform, collecting no data on academic outcomes.

"How can we send that money to the private schools and not check on the kids?" asked Robert "Buddy" Costley, the executive director of the Georgia Association of Educational Leaders.

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, as well as allow transfers of students who have only been in public schools briefly in the past two years.

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