Gov. Brian Kemp on Thursday signed into law an expansion of Georgia’s only school “voucher” program, settling a years-long policy fight between public school proponents and advocates for school choice.
Senate Bill 47 expands access to the 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 certain accommodations, such as more time to take tests.
Over the program’s 14-year history, such students would not have qualified for the private school tuition subsidies the program provides unless they’d emerged from a more rigorous vetting process that designated them as having a learning disability. Students with such learning disabilities qualify for special and at times costly federally-subsidized services, such as speech therapy and counseling.
“SB 47 will ensure that more at-risk students are given the opportunity to attend the school that fits their individual needs,” Kemp said. “This bill will give more parents greater options to ensure their child has every opportunity to achieve their dreams.”
The legislation will allow students who have a so-called “504 plan” to switch from their public school to a private one with the help of state tax dollars. Students who qualify under Section 504 of the federal Rehabilitation Act typically have a private medical diagnosis and school approval for accommodations.
The bill was controversial, passing the state House of Representatives by 91 votes, the bare minimum for a constitutional majority in the 180-member body. It was authored and carried by Republican House leaders and was adopted mostly along party lines. Democrats filed a dissenting report.
During the debate in the state House in March, opponents claimed it could cost the state treasury ― and public schools ― $200 million a year.
“No one knows the true price tag,” said Rep. Becky Evans, D-Atlanta.
Credit: Christina Matacotta
Credit: Christina Matacotta
Supporters said it would cost less. They noted that these students would take only the state portion of their local school’s funding. The average scholarship was $6,734 last school year. (Schools get about half their money from the state, and half from local property and sales tax revenue, with a sliver coming from the federal government.) They also asserted that only a small number of students who are ill-served by their neighborhood school would use the program.
“As good as public schools are, there are just some things that they fall short on,” Rep. Josh Bonner, R-Fayetteville, said during the House debate.
Kimberly Leftwich, a mother in Cobb County who sends two children to private school using the special needs tuition subsidy, said she struggled to get them identified as having a learning disability, in this case, dyslexia. She’s become a volunteer advocate for other families that suspect their children have dyslexia and cannot prove it has harmed them academically. They can get a 504 plan but not a special needs designation because, she said, “often times they don’t fail enough. ... There’s lots of kids that are falling through the cracks.”
Kemp signed the bill in Liberty Plaza across the street from the Capitol building. Parents brought children, including some in wheelchairs. They supported SB 47 and other legislation Kemp signed, such as Senate Bill 42. It makes neighborhood schools allow homeschooled students try out for the football team, the school musical or other extracurricular activities. In exchange, the students will have to take at least one course at the school.
Another bill Kemp signed also affects students at home. Senate Bill 246, dubbed the “learning pod protection act,” prohibits regulation of homes and other informal places where parents send their kids to work and play together, whether before or after school or to attend classes online.
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