Ga. Senate OKs Bill That Would Expand Special Needs Voucher Program

The state Senate approved a bill Tuesday that would expand Georgia’s Special Needs Scholarship. The program uses state money to help special education students attend private schools.

Senate Bill 386 would allow more students to receive the vouchers by letting kids with 504 plans qualify. Currently, students need to have an IEP (Individualized Education Plan) and attend a public school for one year to qualify for the scholarship.

‘It’s Excruciating’

While presenting the bill to the Senate on Tuesday, Sen. Renee Unterman, R-Buford, said she wants more kids to be able to benefit from the program. Currently, fewer than 5,000 students participate statewide. Unterman said the process to get an IEP can be long and arduous for families. She said it took three years to get an IEP in place for her late son.

“As a parent, it’s excruciating because you know your child desperately needs help,” Unterman said. “You know that your child is coming home every day and is being tormented — and possibly bullied — because they’re the last child in the class.”

Unterman said she doesn’t want other kids to have to wait that long. That’s why she wants to open the program for kids with 504 plans.

Public Money For Private Schools?

But some critics believe the bill would open the program up to students without special needs and would favor wealthy families.

State officials estimate the average voucher amount for students with 504 plans would be around $3,000. Sen. Nan Orrock, D-Atlanta, said that doesn’t come close to covering tuition at most private schools.

“It’s going to be families that have the money to fill that gap [that go to private schools] and the folks that are left behind are middle class and low-income,” Orrock said.

Sen. P.K. Martin, R-Lawrenceville, one of the bill’s sponsors and chair of the Senate’s Education and Youth Committee, denied the charge. He said families can combine the voucher with other forms of financial aid.

Shortly after the Senate passed the bill in a bipartisan 33-22 vote, Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan issued a statement supporting the move.

“I believe in empowering families with the flexibility to choose private school options when it comes to providing access to specialized programs in special education,” he said. “Our goal is to improve access for our students with special needs, and by removing hurdles in the existing program that were too restrictive, families will now have access to a program that will better serve its original intent and overall mission.”

It’s Not Over

Opponents would still like to see changes in the legislation as it moves through the House.

For one, families have to give up federal protections guaranteed through an IEP or 504 plan when they accept a voucher. Education advocates, like the Professional Association of Georgia Educators (PAGE), want private schools to be held accountable the same way public schools are.

“If private schools had the same requirements to adhere to those [IEP and 504] plans as public schools currently do, we would look upon the legislation much more favorably,” said Margaret Ciccarelli, director of legislative services for PAGE.

Carolyn Wood, with Education Matters Georgia, said the legislation would disproportionately affect schools in rural parts of the state.

“There are no private schools to take a voucher to in the majority of the rural districts in Georgia, so who this benefits is wealthy, metropolitan parents,” Wood said. “I don’t think this is going to work to the benefit of children in the entire state and it’s really a problem for us.”

For Unterman, though, the bill’s passage is a victory. She smiles in the hallway of the state Capitol after the vote, remembering her son who had special needs.

“It is very personal to me,” she said. “[My] son went through the Gwinnett County school system, and I actually moved him into a private school and then back into the Gwinnett system and, unfortunately, he never graduated from high school.”

Unterman wants families with special needs children to have plenty of options. Ciccarelli and Wood agree with her on that point. They all concur that schools could do more to serve students with special needs.

“We just disagree on how to get there,” Ciccarelli said.