Georgia Senate panel seeks wider special education vouchers

A state Senate committee is advancing a bill that would broaden eligibility for a Georgia program that pays for special education students to attend private schools.

The Senate Education and Youth Committee voted 6-5 on Monday to pass Senate Bill 47, sending it to the full Senate for more debate. Last year, a similar measure passed the Senate but died in the House.

Georgia’s scholarship program now grants money to students who have individualized education plans. The bill would expand eligibility to students who have accommodation plans under section 504 of the federal Rehabilitation Act, as well as students with a diagnosis of a specific disability. Students with 504 plans may be performing on grade level but need some kind of help.

"If the current school system is not providing the services they should be getting, then this program would allow them to take them to another facility and provide financial assistance," said state Sen. Steve Gooch, a Dahlonega Republican.

About 200,000 of Georgia’s 1.8 million public school students have individualized education plans. Fewer than 5,000 students participate in the current 14-year-old program, which costs about $33 million. Each student gets an average of $6,700 a year under the current program, although amounts vary.

There are 58,000 more students with 504 plans. A fiscal note estimates spending between $7 million and $89 million because it’s impossible to know how many parents will enter the program. With such low usage among current students, Gooch said, he believed fewer than 2,000 students would be added.

"The dollar amount is going to be very insignificant for the immediate future, at least," Gooch said.


Opponents, though, said public schools would lose money and that specialized private schools are less likely to be found in rural parts of the state.

"Rural Georgians certainly would not be able to take advantage of this program as much," said Sen. Elena Parent, an Atlanta Democrat. "Therefore we’re bleeding out money that rural Georgia needs for their kids to be educated to give it to people in Atlanta who can afford private school."

Sujith Cherukumilli of the Southern Education Foundation said because private school often costs more, the program provides only "an illusion of choice" for low-income families. He said the program "disproportionately provides taxpayer-funded scholarships to parents who can already afford to send their child to public school," doesn’t do enough to track student performance, and will divert more taxpayer dollars to private schools while the state isn’t fully funding K-12 schools.

Parents also questioned whether the numbers would be as small as Gooch said, noting that in addition to having a formal 504 plan, students could get a diagnosis from a physician and that might be easy.


Opponents also objected that the money could be used for such things as uniforms, athletics, field trips, and after-school care, which generally aren’t permissible uses for state aid to public schools.

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 also would 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.

The General Assembly is also considering a bill that would create education savings accounts that parents could spend on private school or home school expenses. Lawmakers are also eyeing a measure that would allow taxpayers to get another $50 million in state income tax credits in Georgia’s program that provides tax credits for private school scholarships.

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