Ga. Senate Committee Passes Bill That Would Expand Special Needs Voucher Program

Some parents of students with special needs hope Gov. Brian Kemp will allocate micro-grants for families in the next round of GEER funding.

More students could soon qualify for one of the state’s school voucher programs. A bill that would expand the Georgia Special Needs Scholarship (GSNS) is advancing through the legislature. The program provides state money to families with students who have special needs so they can attend private schools.

To qualify for the scholarship, a student needs to have an Individualized Education Plan—or IEP. That shows the child has a learning disability or an impediment that makes learning harder. IEPs outline strategies teachers should use to help the child. A student also has to have an IEP to receive special education services. They also have to attend a Georgia public school for one year.

Senate Bill 386 would expand  GSNS to include children with another kind of plan called a 504.

Both IEPs and 504s are federal plans. However, Gretchen Walton, Compliance and Legislative Affairs Officer for the Cobb County School District, said the legal guidelines for 504 plans are much broader.

“You can get a 504 for a broken arm,” Walton told the Senate Education and Youth Committee. “We best serve a lot of our kids with allergies, food allergies. It’s a great protection for them.”

That was a common concern among some education advocates as the committee considered the bill. Would students with broken arms be able to qualify for a special needs voucher under the bill?

Jimmy Stokes, a former school principal who now works for GAEL (The Georgia Association of Educational Leaders), said 504s aren’t meant for students with special needs.

“Forcing an alliance between 504 and special ed just doesn’t work,” Stokes said. “It’s like putting avocados and pecans in the same basket and calling them all a fruit.”

The bill’s authors have tried to ensure the program wouldn’t cover minor injuries by including specific disabilities students need to have to qualify for GSNS.

“There was some concern that the language was too broad, said Sen. Renee Unterman, R-Buford, the bill’s sponsor. “I kind of disagree with that because if you look at the federal regulations…. it’s pretty explicit…but in an abundance of caution, we did add particular disorders.”

Opponents of the plan also pointed out that when families accept a special needs voucher, they agree to give up federal protections.

“Scholarship students lose the right to the services outlined in their IEPs under the existing program or in the Section 504 eligibility criteria articulated under this bill,” said Margaret Ciccarelli, director of legislative services for the Professional Association of Georgia Educators.

The Senate’s Education and Youth committee passed the bill in a 6-4 vote Wednesday morning. Afterward, Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan expressed his support for the measure.

“I have three boys who attend public school, and I understand the critical importance of education in a child’s life,” Duncan said in a statement. “But it is crucial to allow parents and guardians the opportunity to make choices that best fit their child and their child’s needs.”

SB 386 is likely to have several amendments added to it when it comes before the full Senate for a vote.