ATLANTA (AP) — A plan to make more Georgia public school students eligible for a program that pays for special education students to attend private schools has narrowly cleared a key hurdle, passing a state House that has been skeptical of such programs.
The House voted 91-71 on Thursday to approve Senate Bill 47 after a committee narrowed the expansion sought by the Senate. The measure goes back to the Senate, which could agree to the changes and send it to Gov. Brian Kemp, or seek negotiations with the House.
“This will ensure that all children with special needs have access to the special needs program," said Rep. Will Wade, a Dawsonville Republican and former Dawson County school board member. “This is not a broad expansion. I am not for the broad expansion of vouchers.”
Several other bills that would expand subsidies for private school and homeschooling have failed, leaving the special education bill as the only one with a strong chance of becoming law.
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. Students with 504 plans may be performing on grade level but need some kind of help.
The bill that passed the Senate proposed allowing students with a 504 plan or a diagnosis of a particular disability to qualify. That raised concerns that some parents might obtain bogus disability diagnoses to access the funds. But the House proposal requires a 504 plan from a public school, as well as a diagnosis of a disability.
Opponents of the bill said that because there's no academic evaluation of the current program, it's unclear whether it works. They also said they don't want to drain more more money from public education to send to private schools.
“Our responsibility is to all the kids in this state,” said Rep. Stacey Evans, an Atlanta Democrat. "We’re picking out a few and leaving the rest out there in what we know are outdated, underfunded conditions.”
Opponents also said there were few private schools available in rural areas.
“How does this bill help the people I represent?" asked Rep. Winfred Dukes, an Albany Democrat. "We don’t have the facilities for these kids to go to.”
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, supporters say they believe fewer than 2,000 students would be added.
“The parents know well and good what they’re receiving from the public school," said Rep Wes Cantrell, a Woodstock Republican. "So the families are looking for a better option.”
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