Senate Approves Controversial Voucher Bill
- 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
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
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: