The Georgia House has approved a bill that would expand eligibility in the state’s special needs scholarship program.
The program offers scholarships for students with individualized education plans to attend a private school or a public school of their choice.
Senate Bill 47 would make public school students with certain disorders on 504 plans eligible to apply for the program. It also would open the program to children who are adopted, in foster care or from a military family based in Georgia.
Individualized education plans provide special education learning environments for children with certain disabilities, while 504 plans require schools to make accommodations for students while they learn alongside their peers. A 504 plan could provide students with extra time for assessments, breakout instruction, or modified assignments, among other things.
The bill cleared the House on Thursday, 152-14, after a lengthy debate and heads back to the Senate for concurrence.
Rep. Will Wade, R-Dawsonville, who sponsored the bill in the House, said the House version of the bill is a smaller expansion of the program. The initial version of the bill expanded the program to all 58,000 public school children in Georgia currently on 504 plans or with a diagnosis from a physician.
Wade is a former Dawson County School Board member and former president of the Georgia School Board Association. His wife also is a special education director for a middle school, he said.
“Public schools are doing an amazing job, but even the best business does not get 100 percent satisfaction for 100 percent of its customers 100 percent of the time,” Wade said.
About 5,000 Georgia public school students with individualized education plans are enrolled in the scholarship program, Wade said. The program costs the state more than $30 million based on current enrollment levels.
SB 47 also would allow preschoolers with either plan to qualify for the program and adds reporting requirements for the participating schools.
About 249 private schools are enrolled in the Georgia Special Needs Scholarship program. The average scholarship is $6,672, lawmakers said. The average private school tuition in Georgia is about $10,411 per year, according to privateschoolreview.com.
Critics of the bill said voucher programs redirect public school funding to private schools. Proponents said the programs cut government cost.
Rep. Tommy Benton, R-Jefferson, said private schools are not mandated to follow the guidelines under the 504 plans, so there is no way to confirm whether students will receive the accommodations they need.
“We also don’t know how the voucher dollars are being spent, and they could be used for items or programs that public schools cannot spend tax dollars for,” he said. “This bill does not meet traditionally conservative goals of government accountability and transparency.”
Under SB 47, the Georgia Board of Education is required to survey program participants and gather data relating to student eligibility, transparency and “awareness of the impact of the program.” The Georgia Department of Education must post details of the program’s cost on its website.
Georgia Center of Opportunity Vice President of Public Policy Buzz Brockway said the bill empowers children in marginalized communities by giving them more access to education.
“If a child is succeeding in a learning environment different than their locally zoned public school, why would we ever think to put up roadblocks to prevent that? Especially for our special-needs community,” Brockway said.
The Senate initially passed the bill, 30-21, on March 3.
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