Brace yourselves. More voucher bills on state agenda

In 2019, a teachers group put anti-school-voucher notes on lawmakers' desks in the General Assembly. WIth vouchers back on the calendar this session, they may need those signs again. Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com
In 2019, a teachers group put anti-school-voucher notes on lawmakers' desks in the General Assembly. WIth vouchers back on the calendar this session, they may need those signs again. Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com

Credit: Bob Andres

Credit: Bob Andres

Senate Bill 47 would expand vouchers to children requiring accommodations

A Senate bill would broaden Georgia’s Special Needs Scholarship, a voucher program created in 2007 for children with documented disabilities who require specialized instruction. Senate Bill 47 would award vouchers to children who can learn in a regular classroom with accommodations, such as extended time on tests and assignments or behavioral supports.

The bill targets the 58,000 public school students in the state who receive their accommodations through what is known as a 504 plan. But the legislation goes even further, opening voucher eligibility to kids without a 504 plan if their parents produce a justifying diagnosis from a licensed physician or psychologist.

“You are being asked to potentially double the special needs voucher program for students who do not need specialized instruction and who will then go to schools where they will not have the same protections as they do in public schools. It just does not make sense. It’s also not a great use of money,” said Gretchen Walton, compliance and legislative affairs officer at the Cobb County School District. Walton has also served as the district’s 504 coordinator.

Walton was among the education advocates at a hearing this week who pointed out that this proposed voucher expansion comes at a time when Georgia isn’t fully funding public schools. “We had so much progress with being fully funded before the pandemic. We need to at least get back to the point,” she said.

Walton noted the loose language in the legislation around a “formal diagnosis” and the absence of any time frame meant that “a student who had leukemia when he was 2 and has a formal diagnosis can now get a special needs scholarship as a perfectly healthy 15-year-old.”

The current Georgia special needs vouchers vary in amount based on the severity of the disability and the services the child receives. In 2019-2020, the program served 5,203 students, with the average voucher at $6,734, for a total cost to the state of about $35.6 million. Of the students enrolled, 36.4% were Black, 52.7% were white, and 9.3% were Asian/Hispanic/Native American/Multiracial.

There was no financial review with SB 47 estimating its likely price tag, and that worried some lawmakers. “We are casting a much broader net. I think we need to think about the logistics of this. A 504 is a much lower standard of admission than what we currently have,” cautioned Sen. Lindsey Tippins, R-Marietta, who requested a fiscal note on SB 47.

Eight months ago, the state Senate cast a unanimous vote for a bill to strengthen the financial responsibility of local school boards of education. Senate Bill 68 declared, “School board members hold special roles as trustees of public funds.” Yet, in terms of determining whether the voucher money would be well spent, SB 47 only calls for “an annual survey of participating parents’ satisfaction with the program, their satisfaction with the private school, and their likelihood of recommending the program.”

SB 47 is not the only voucher bill this session. House Bill 60 would redirect state money into “scholarship accounts” for parents who withdraw their children from public school and educate them privately. Among the families eligible for these vouchers: those in school districts do not open for “100 percent of instruction in person.” House Bill 142 would increase a private school scholarship fund underwritten by tax credits. The Georgia Budget & Policy Institute estimates these three bills, fully implemented, would cost the state $546 million annually.

All these voucher bills depend on a unique view of taxes -- that the taxes we all pay to fund education somehow become the property of people with children who should be able to spend it as they wish. But the tax dollars that voucher proponents repeatedly describe as “the parents’ money” represents a pooling of all the community’s resources, including taxpayers without children.

The rallying cry has become the “money should follow the child.” But this argument is limited to education dollars, rather than, for instance, the public funding for roads or state government. No one ever says the road money should follow the drivers, who may never traverse I-285 and would prefer their taxes only underwrite two-lane roads.

And, given an option, some taxpayers may want to outsource the governance of Georgia to a private management firm. But I think we all know voters will never get that choice.

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