Senate Bill 47, which would expand Georgia’s special needs voucher program, is on its way to Gov. Brian Kemp’s desk for his signature. The bill was heavily debated before state House members gave it final approval this week.
Georgia’s current special needs voucher program lets students who have Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) use state money to pay for private school tuition. Students with IEPs are typically diagnosed with one of 13 disabilities outlined in federal law. SB 47 would also let students with education plans under Section 504 of the federal Rehabilitation Act take advantage of the program. Students with 504 plans typically need some kind of accommodation, although they may not have a disability. SB 47 would require the state board of education to list conditions students with 504 plans could have in order to qualify for the voucher. They include intellectual disabilities, bipolar disorder, and drug and alcohol abuse.
“For the vast majority of students with special needs, 97-98 percent will best be served by their public school system,” said Sen. Steve Gooch (R-Dahlonega), one of the bill’s sponsors. “This scholarship provides opportunities when they are not getting what they need.”
Students who qualify for the program would receive a “voucher” for the amount of money the state would spend on their education. They could then use the funds to pay for private school tuition.
Some opponents of the bill don’t like the idea of sending money meant for public schools to private ones.
“Private school vouchers undermine our public schools by diverting needed resources away from the public school system—that educates over 90 percent of Georgia’s children—to fund the education of the select few, whose families will be able to afford to pay the extra cost of private schooling,” said Sen. Elena Parent (D-Atlanta).
Voucher opponents have a long list of complaints. For example, the Professional Association of Georgia Educators (PAGE) opposes a requirement that students who accept the special needs voucher have to agree to give up legal protections they’re guaranteed to get in public schools through IEPs or 504s. (Private schools could still choose to honor the IEP or 504, but they aren’t required to by law.)
Critics also say the current program doesn’t have enough guardrails in place.
“This bill [SB 47] expands a program that already exists that we haven’t studied,” said Rep. Stacey Evans (D-Atlanta). “We haven’t reviewed it. It doesn’t have transparency. We don’t know how it’s working, for who it’s working, and how we might make it better.”
The Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, which also opposes the bill, says instead of spending an estimated $35 million on the special needs scholarship program, the state should invest in strengthening public schools.
“Consider legislation that would support both urban and rural Georgia, where no private schools exist for students to get a scholarship for,” said GBPI senior policy analyst Stephen Owens. “Invest in higher pay for special education teachers or policies that bolster our school leaders so they can bette r evaluate and lead these teachers.”
Removing ‘Bureaucratic Barriers’?
Some critics say the average voucher amount—about $6000, depending on a child’s school district—wouldn’t come close to covering tuition at some private schools. Rep. Ed Setzler (R-Acworth) said lawmakers shouldn’t prevent parents from taking advantage of the program if they’re willing to pay the remaining cost.
“Why can’t we simply let a mom who’s willing to sacrifice $6-8000 a year follow her kid?” he said. “It … may not pay the whole tuition, but she’s willing to pay the difference. Why can’t we let those dollars follow her in a way that would follow somebody that has the means to move to a different county?”
In addition to the special needs voucher, Georgia’s tax credit scholarship program also provides vouchers for students to attend private schools. Parents can ‘stack’ the vouchers, meaning they could take advantage of both programs to cover a greater portion of private school tuition.
Lawmakers introduced three school voucher bills this session. Two, including SB 47, would expand existing programs. Another would have created an Education Scholarship Account (ESA) where parents could use state funds for educational expenses. However, SB 47 was the only bill the General Assembly approved. While the measure has its detractors, it also has plenty of legislative and public support.
“Bureaucratic barriers shouldn’t keep kids from finding an environment that allows them to thrive academically,” said Christy Riggins, the Georgia field director for the American Federation for Children. “Because of the courageous leadership of legislators who voted for this bill, thousands more Georgia students who might have fallen through the cracks will instead have hope and opportunity.”