Ever since Georgia approved its special needs voucher in 2007, there have been campaigns to broaden it. With its proposed expansion to 504 plans, SB 386 is the latest effort.
Photo: AJC File
Photo: AJC File

Opinion: Another year, another push for expanded vouchers

In presenting her voucher legislation today to a Senate committee, Sen. Renee Unterman, R-Buford, said she had never written an education bill in her two decades in the state Senate.

One of the Republicans running in the 7th Congressional District May primary, Unterman ought to consider leaving her Senate record intact. Because her Senate Bill 386 is ripe for abuse and nowhere near ready to be considered.

Unterman’s bill would expand Georgia’s special needs vouchers to any student who holds a 504 plan. The 504 plans are not for children who require specialized instruction, as is the case with the Individual Education Plans or IEPs mandated by Georgia’s special needs vouchers.  Rather,  504 plans are for kids who can learn without specialized instruction but who require specific accommodations to do so. 

In 2007, Georgia lawmakers approved a targeted voucher that parents of children with special needs could use toward private school tuition. The vouchers vary in amount based on the severity of the disability and the services the child had been receiving in a public school. Ever since Georgia approved the program, there have been efforts to broaden it. With its expansion to 504 plans, SB 386 is the latest.

A 504 plan requires accommodations for a child’s specific circumstances, which are often brought to the school’s attention by a parent.  The law specifies that kids can qualify if they have physical or mental impairments that affect or limit any of their abilities to walk, breathe, eat, or sleep, communicate, see, hear, or speak, read, concentrate, think, or learn, stand, bend, lift, or work. These can be short-term impairments, such as a fractured wrist. 

“You can get a 504 for a broken arm or food allergies,” said attorney and Cobb County Schools Compliance & Legislative Affairs Officer Gretchen Walton, an expert on 504 plans. “I had a superintendent tell me even ingrown toenails.”

Examples of 504 accommodations include preferential seating, extended time on tests and assignments, reduced homework or classwork, adjusted class schedules or grading, verbal testing and occupational or physical therapy.

Nationwide, we’ve seen a rise in parents paying for neuropsychological evaluations to compel schools to grant their children accommodations for testing. While many of these accommodations are likely legitimate, there have been high-profile abuses. 

Testing accommodations were the cheating mechanism used by the mega rich parents snared in the federal Varsity Blues college entrance scandal. Because of their children’s 504 labels, the parents, including actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, were able to take their teens to private testing centers where their SAT and ACT tests were altered to raise their scores. 

Senate Education and Youth Chair P.K. Martin said he was unaware of any abuses of the 504 program. Martin ought to look at a national New York Times investigation that found a surge in 504 plans in affluent communities.

In high schools in the richest districts in America, nearly 6% of high schoolers had a 504 plan, more than double the national average of 2.7%. In some affluent districts, nearly one out of five high school students had 504 plans.

Martin could also talk to the private tutoring companies in Atlanta that tell me they see this happening here as well. 

The Times found: 

In the country’s richest enclaves, where students already have greater access to private tutors and admissions coaches, the share of high school students with the designation is double the national average. In some communities, more than one in 10 students have one — up to seven times the rate nationwide, according to a New York Times analysis of federal data…Students in every ZIP code are dealing with anxiety, stress and depression as academic competition grows ever more cutthroat. But the sharp disparity in accommodations raises the question of whether families in moneyed communities are taking advantage of the system, or whether they simply have the means to address a problem that less affluent families cannot.

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About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.