Georgia Senate wants to expand special needs school voucher

The Georgia Senate passed a second school voucher bill Wednesday. The bill now moves to the House for consideration. AJC FILE

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The Georgia Senate passed a second school voucher bill Wednesday. The bill now moves to the House for consideration. AJC FILE

The Georgia Senate passed legislation Wednesday that would expand eligibility for the state’s only school voucher program.

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 might qualify 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 and are assigned teachers with special training.

The procedure to enroll under Section 504 of the federal Rehabilitation Act is less involved; 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.

Supporters of expanding eligibility, including the American Federation for Children, the group founded by the family of former U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, say public schools can be frustrating for parents who feel their children have a learning problem that is unaddressed. Critics, including groups representing teachers and school boards, fear the legislation will divert tax dollars from already underfunded public schools while mostly benefiting wealthier families that can cover the difference in cost between the subsidy and private school tuition and fees.

The legislation gives “extra privileges’” to the wealthy, increasing segregation by race and class, said Sen. Elena Parent, an Atlanta Democrat. She sends her son to a private school and said the public shouldn’t pay for it just because he has ADHD.

A diagnosis needed to qualify for the proposed subsidy “can be easily obtained by parents who can afford out-of-pocket psychiatry fees or otherwise manipulate the system,” Parent said.

The legislation has powerful backers, including Sen. Steve Gooch, the majority whip. The Dahlonega Republican said his son has a 504 plan and that he might have used the program were he not a senior in high school.

“This bill is set forth to help people in need. Not the rich. It’s for anyone,” said Gooch, who is among 18 co-sponsors of the legislation, all of them Republicans, including several ranking members.

It is unclear how much state money the legislation would send to private schools. There are about 200,000 special needs students in Georgia and just over 5,000 participating in the existing voucher program, or about 3%, Gooch noted. There are about 60,000 students with a 504 designation.

The bill passed 30-23 with no Democrats in support and a few Republicans opposed. Similar legislation passed the Senate last year but did not get a vote in the House.

Other education-related bills approved by the Senate Wednesday included Senate Bill 42 removing discipline scores from school ratings; and Senate Bill 59 involving funding and facilities for charter schools. Both passed with bipartisan support.

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