March 10, 2020

Legislative Session
Day 27 (Part I)
Report Snapshot

Busy Day at the Capitol – Partial Report from PAGE

Senate Approves Controversial Voucher Bill

House Passes FY 2021 Budget Reducing Educator Pay Raise from $2,000 to $1,000 for 2020-2021

House Passes Flat Tax Income Tax Reduction

Family Leave and Bill Allowing Home Schooled Students to Enroll in College & Career Academies Pass
Upcoming Schedule

Wednesday, March 11 – Committee Work Day

Thursday, March 12 – Legislative Day 28/Crossover Day

Friday, March 13 – Legislative Day 29
Busy Day at the Capitol – Partial Report from PAGE

With action intensifying at the Capitol in advance of Crossover Day on Thursday, March 12, the House and Senate both had full calendars. Crossover Day marks the day by which all legislation must pass one chamber in order to remain viable. 

In order to update our Capitol Report readers regarding a number of high-profile bills, PAGE is publishing part one of our Day 27 report, based on all action which occurred by 5:30 p.m. PAGE will publish part two of the Day 27 report on Wednesday, March 11. 

Senate Approves Controversial Voucher Bill

Highlights:

  • Senate passes SB 386, the controversial expansion of the special needs voucher program to 504 plan students, by a vote of 33-22.

  • Senate amends the bill to include some accountability and reporting.

The Senate amended and approved SB 386 by Sen. Renee Unterman (R-Buford), which would increase the number of students eligible for the Special Needs Scholarship voucher program. In the current version, students with Section 504 plans and a condition specified in the bill (e.g. autism, emotional or behavioral disorder) would qualify for a voucher to attend a private school. Students who have been diagnosed with an eligible condition by a physician or psychologist but do not have a 504 plan would also be able to access a private school voucher. The number of students who would be eligible for a voucher under these criteria is unknown. 

In her presentation of the bill to the Senate, Unterman described SB 386 as a “simple bill” that does not drastically change the special needs voucher program. She expressed frustration with the current Individualized Education Program (IEP) process, particularly the time it takes for the process to be completed. Unterman explained that the bill is being called “the camel’s nose under the tent” by opponents, but she does not think that participation rates in the program would greatly expand if the bill passes as many students that would be eligible for a 504 plan will still be best served in public schools. 

Sen. Elena Parent (D-Atlanta) spoke against the bill, describing her sympathy for special needs, especially as the parent of a child with special needs. She explained that the public funds that are being re-routed to private schools would better serve public schools by helping lower class sizes and allowing for the hiring of more school counselors and school social workers to help students with special needs. Parent expressed concern that many high-needs families would be unable to benefit from the voucher as tuition for private schools in metro Atlanta far exceeds the estimated $3,000 received from the voucher. 

Sen. Steven Henson (D-Stone Mountain) also spoke in opposition to the bill, explaining that it would help fund private school education for many metro Atlanta students at the expense of rural Georgia as many rural communities do not have private schools. He called for the legislature to provide more funding for public schools as Georgia is currently 34 th  in public school funding. 

Sen. Lindsey Tippins (R-Marietta) expressed concern that the program expansion contained in SB 386 defeats the purpose of the original special needs voucher program created in 2007 by SB 10. He called for more transparency in the program. He also explained that, under SB 386, a student who enters the voucher program in kindergarten would be eligible to remain in the program in perpetuity, even if the student’s disability no longer exists.

Sen. P.K. Martin (R-Lawrenceville), chair of the Senate Education & Youth Committee, spoke in favor of the bill, explaining that parents of special needs students must deal with an “impossible labyrinth of bureaucracy” when seeking an IEP. When questioned by Sen. Nan Orrock (D-Atlanta) about how a family with low income would be able to bridge the gap between the voucher amount and actual tuition costs at private schools, Martin countered that some private schools offer scholarships to help with tuition for some special needs students. 

Sen. Zahra Karinshak (D-Duluth), speaking in opposition to SB 386, shared concerns that special needs students in private schools are not eligible for the same federal protections as special needs students in public schools. 

The Senate approved three amendments to SB 386:

  • Amendment 1 by Sen. Martin would require the Georgia Department of Education (GaDOE) to collect and report information on the special needs scholarship student retention rate for each private school and for the program as a whole. The data is to be disaggregated by race and gender, the average number of years students receive a scholarship, the percent of students who return to public schools annually and to what grade levels, and the assessments used by private schools to measure student academic progress.

  • Amendment 2 by Sen. Martin would require the GaDOE to post the cost for instructional programs on its website. The amendment also allows parents who disagree with the funding awarded to a student to request a review of the program weights.

  • Amendment 3 by Sen. Unterman adds “any rare disease identified by the National Institutes of Health and the Genetic and Rare Disease Center’s list of rare disease disorders” to the list of eligible conditions allowed to participate in the special needs voucher program.
 
After approving the amendments, the Senate voted on the bill. The bill passed by a vote of 33–22 and moves to the House to begin the committee process. Reach out to your local representative to voice opposition against the bill and urge them to vote "no" should the bill reach the House for a vote.

Below is a list of how each Senator voted:
-Josh Stephens
House Passes FY 2021 Budget Reducing Educator Pay Raise from $2,000 to $1,000 for 2020-2021

Highlights:

  • House passes state budget reducing educator pay raise from $2,000 to $1,000.

  • Budget adds funding for school counselors and restores funding to reduce impact of proposed cuts to other state services.

The House passed the  Fiscal Year 2021  budget. The House version of the budget reduces the $2,000 educator pay raise proposed by Gov. Kemp to $1,000. It also provides funding for many other state agencies originally slated for a cut in FY 2021. Georgia’s school funding formula is also fully funded for a third consecutive year. Other highlights include:

  • $24.8 million increase in funding for school counselors, bringing the ratio of counselors and students to 1:450

  • $1,000 pay raise for Georgia Pre-K lead teachers and a 3 percent raise for Pre-K assistant teachers

  • $1,000 raise for certified educators beginning Sept. 1. Five percent raise for school bus drivers and school nutrition workers, and 2 percent raise for school nurses

Review more budget detail and an action alert regarding the pay raise in  PAGE’s Day 26 report . The FY2021 budget now moves to the Senate for consideration. 

-Margaret Ciccarelli
House Passes Flat Tax Income Tax Reduction

Highlights:

  • Controversial income tax reduction passes House.

  • HB 949 creates a flat tax and confers biggest benefit on high-wage earners. 

  • Adds generous tax credit for families who adopt from foster care.

HB 949  by Rep. John Carson (R-Marietta) seeks to reduce the state personal income tax rate from 5.75 to 5.375 percent and converts it from a graduated income tax to a flat tax. If implemented, it would be the second income tax reduction in two years. HB 949 eliminates the double deduction and the state’s small low income tax credit. It adds a substantial tax credit for families who adopt children from foster care. A number of legislators spoke for and against the bill. Opposition focused on the bill’s disproportionate positive impact on wage earners making more than $108,000 annually. The top one percent of wage earners are expected to see savings of more than $4,000 each year. Over half a million middle and low wage earners are expected to owe marginally less or slightly more. Comments in support of the legislation focused on the benefits of the foster adoption tax credit and reducing the disproportionate burden of funding state services on high-wage earners. “We are not going to put the state at risk,” said House Ways & Means Committee Chair Brett Harrell (R-Snellville). The legislation passed with 100 members in favor and 68 opposed and now moves to the Senate.  

-Margaret Ciccarelli  
Family Leave and Bill Allowing Home Schooled Students to Enroll in College & Career Academies Pass

Highlights

  • House passes legislation giving educators three weeks of paid leave for birth of a child or fostering or adopting a child.

  • Senate passes bill that would allow home school or private school students to enroll in College and Career Academies.

HB 1094  by Rep. Houston Gaines (R-Athens) grants educators and state employees up to three weeks of paid parental leave for birth of a child. When presenting the bill on the House floor, Gaines mentioned it would apply to 132,000 educators and that any financial impact is expected to be recognized when public employees retire and should be “negligible.” The bill would also provide leave for foster care and adoption. The legislation passed with only one dissenting vote and now moves to the Senate. 

The Senate passed  SB 430  by Sen. William Ligon (R-Brunswick), which would allow home school or private school students to enroll in College and Career Academies (CCA), as space allows. Ligon said he was approached by a CCA in his district that requested the legislation. During the committee process, Ligon changed the bill to give local school systems the choice to allow these students to participate in CCA courses rather than issuing a mandate.

-Margaret Ciccarelli and Josh Stephens
Claire Suggs
Senior Education Policy Analyst
csuggs@pageinc.org
Josh Stephens
Legislative Affairs Specialist
jstephens@pageinc.org
Margaret Ciccarelli
Director of Legislative Services
mciccarelli@pageinc.org