Georgia House votes to expand school voucher program

File photo. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM
File photo. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM

The Georgia House of Representatives voted Thursday to expand access to a private school voucher program for special education students, the state’s only program of its kind.

Supporters say the legislation gives parents an alternative when public schools fail to meet children’s needs. Opponents fear that if the bill becomes law, it would shift tens of millions of public tax dollars to private schools, mostly helping the well-off. The vote follows years of debate and unsuccessful attempts to expand vouchers in Georgia.

Senate Bill 47 would amend the 14-year-old Georgia Special Needs Scholarship Program by including students with a diagnosis for a variety of conditions — from autism and cancer to drug or alcohol abuse — that have qualified them for what’s known as a “504 Plan.”

Currently, only those formally identified through a deliberative school vetting process as needing federally-subsidized specialized education plans can get the scholarship. Such students typically get extra attention in their public school and are assigned teachers with special training.

The procedure to enroll under Section 504 of the federal Rehabilitation Act is less involved; and the accommodations, such as extra time to take tests, don’t typically cost money.

Most school operating funds come from state and local taxes. The special needs voucher lets qualifying students use the state portion — the average scholarship was $6,734 last school year — to offset their cost for private school tuition.

Proponents say SB 47 would bring incremental change to a little-used voucher program. Just over 5,000 students are enrolled in it. And expansion would cost the state nothing while benefitting public schools, proponents say, since the schools would be able to keep the local portion of their tax dollars while not spending anything to serve the departed students.

It’s like switching grocery stores and letting the former store continue receiving half the shopper’s money, Rep. Wes Cantrell, R-Woodstock, said during the floor debate. “It’s a big win for the public schools.”

Opponents say that view misapprehends the economy of scale that allows public schools to operate. When a few children leave a school, it still must pay the same number of teachers, bus drivers and cafeteria workers, they argue.

The 91-71 vote fell mostly along party lines, with most Republicans in support and Democrats opposed.

Tommy Benton, R-Jefferson, a former teacher, was among the handful of Republicans to vote against the measure. “If enough students leave, it means teachers have to be let go,” he said during the floor debate.

Democrats said the legislation offers little accountability since it does not require academic tracking of students who take the vouchers to private schools. They also said wealthier families in metro areas are the ones who stand to benefit since there are few private schools in rural areas and because the gap between the voucher amount and a tuition costing thousands, or tens of thousands, of dollars a year is too vast for all but high-income earners to cover.

Noting that the state already gives schools less money than its funding formula says they are owed, Becky Evans, D-Atlanta, said the measure could erode public education.

“Senate Bill 47 has the potential to create two separate state-funded school systems,” she said while presenting her party’s formal opposition report. “One for the haves, and one for the have nots.”

Because the House amended the legislation, it must return to the Senate for approval of the changes. Among the amendments are a requirement that participating students actually have a 504 plan rather than just a diagnosis that could lead to one.

Like the House on Thursday, the Senate, which originated the bill, had passed it by a narrow margin early this month. The legislation was supported by ranking members of Senate leadership, which could mean a swift final vote.

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