ATLANTA (AP) — The state Senate approved a plan Wednesday that would broaden eligibility for a Georgia program that pays for special education students to attend private schools.
The Senate voted 30-23 to pass Senate Bill 47, sending it to the House, despite cries from opponents that the expansion is vulnerable to abuse and will drain money from public school systems.
It's one of several voucher expansions under discussion this year in Georgia. A House bill would create a program that would create educational savings accounts for some students that parents could direct for learning-related purposes including home-schooling and private schools. Georgia already has another program that grants state income tax credits to people who donate to private school scholarship funds.
Georgia's existing special needs scholarship program grants money to about 5,000 students who have individualized education plans and have left public schools. The bill would expand eligibility to public school students who have accommodation plans under Section 504 of the federal Rehabilitation Act, as well as students with a diagnosis of specific disability. Students with 504 plans may be performing on grade level but need some kind of help.
"This legislation has opened the doors for students with special needs to pursue a private school option when the public school just is not working for their individual needs," said state Sen. Steve Gooch, a Dahlonega Republican.
But Sen. Elena Parent, an Atlanta Democrat, argued that it will be easy to get a diagnosis, and because there's no provision to reevaluate students' conditions or test their learning, it means the state could be subsidizing a lifetime of private school. She said the bill has "zero oversight and accountability" and is "wide open for fraud and abuse."
After Gooch implied some opponents of the bill are hypocrites because their children are in private school, Parent admitted she has a child with a attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder in private school.
"There is no way my family should get a cent to send my child to private school when we have limited tax dollars and we can afford it just fine," she said.
About 200,000 of Georgia's 1.8 million public school students have individualized education plans. Fewer than 5,000 students participate in the current 14-year-old program, which costs about $33 million. Each student gets an average of $6,700 a year under the current program, although individual amounts vary.
There are 58,000 more students with 504 plans. A fiscal note estimates spending between $7 million and $89 million because it's impossible to know how many parents will enter the program. With such low usage among current students, Gooch said, he believed fewer than 2,000 students would be added, saying the current program has had little impact.
"Opponents claimed this legislation would bring the demise of public education," Gooch said. "They claimed it would bring a mass exodus from the public schools and cripple special education in our state. Has that happened, Georgia? No, I can assure you it has not."
The bill also would allow children who receive public special needs preschool services to get the money even if they have never attended public kindergarten. It would also allow transfers of students who have only been in public schools briefly in the past two years and allow foster care children to get the money immediately.