Georgia lawmakers approve expansion of special needs school vouchers

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

Georgia lawmakers approved an expansion of the state’s only private school voucher program Monday, when the Senate agreed to give schools a say over which of their students qualify for the program.

Senate Bill 47, which now goes to Gov. Brian Kemp, 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.”

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, they say. The vote follows years of debate and unsuccessful attempts to expand vouchers in Georgia.

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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.

Under the version approved by the Senate in early March, a student would only have needed a diagnosis by a Georgia doctor to qualify for a scholarship to leave the public school. The House added a requirement that schools must agree to give students a 504 plan before they can qualify for the scholarship, and that is what the Senate agreed to in a 30-18 vote Monday.

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