For The Record

Senator revives plan to expand special needs voucher program

By: - February 9, 2021 6:42 am

Sen. Steve Gooch takes questions about his school voucher bill before the Senate Education and Youth Committee Feb. 8. Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder

State Sen. Steve Gooch is reviving a push for school vouchers with a plan to substantially expand private school scholarship eligibility for students with special needs.

Opponents say the vouchers take state money away from public schools and transfer it to private schools with less accountability and transparency. Supporters say an expanded program will give parents of special needs students more options to overcome family challenges.

Under the Georgia Special Needs Scholarship, students with Individualized Education Plans can get a state scholarship to attend a private school. The Dahlonega Republican’s bill expands the state’s program to students covered under federal laws designed to protect students with disabilities, but with lower barriers to qualification than Georgia requires now. 

One Republican state lawmaker said during a hearing Monday the proposal would make 58,000 students newly eligible, but most of them would likely not participate. Just under 200,000 Georgia students are assigned an individualized plan, but only about 5,200 of them receive the scholarship.

Gooch introduced the legislation at a Senate Education and Youth Committee Monday. It is substantially similar to a bill from last year proposed by then-Sen. Renee Unterman and co-sponsored by Gooch. That bill passed the Senate in March before the Legislature abruptly adjourned as the pandemic spread, and it did not get a vote in the House.

The state paid out more than $35.5 million to support the private education of 5,203 students in the 2019-2020 school year, with an average scholarship amount of $6,734, according to the Georgia Department of Education.

The more expansive plan also lists 21 conditions – up from 11 in current law – that could qualify students for scholarships, including attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder, cancer and other mental, physical or behavioral issues.

Gooch said his son struggled with an Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity diagnosis, and although his teachers did their best, it was sometimes a challenge trying to manage his education.

“His mother and I had a difficult time trying to help him,” Gooch said. “We didn’t have the financial resources to take him to a private school in Atlanta because it’s so far to drive there, and there’s probably not a school close by that we could have taken him to. Even if the scholarship had been available at the time, we probably would not have been able to exercise that opportunity, but I would sure hate to keep that opportunity from existing for other parents.”

“There’s not a lot any of us wouldn’t do for our children, and just because it’s taking money from the public school system, in my opinion, should not be the reason to not pass the legislation,” he added.

Several members of the public at Monday’s hearing in a legislative chamber took to the podium to lodge objections, including a lack of private school accountability to taxpayers.

“What if they are attending a private school that is not functioning as well, and we will never hear about it?” said Robert Costley, executive director of the Georgia Association of Educational Leaders. “Because we don’t get to see their audit findings, we don’t get to see their test scores, if they’re higher functioning, we don’t get to see if they grow from year to year. Maybe some department gets to see it, but not the voters.”

Students who participate in voucher programs are required to waive their right to services under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, meaning private schools that participate in the plan are not required to provide special education to students. That comes as a surprise to some parents whose children participate in the program, three Georgia educational groups said in an open letter to Gov. Brian Kemp opposing the bill this month.

“Students and their families have no recourse in these circumstances. They may not even know prior to enrolling in a private school that the school does not offer those important special services,” says a letter signed by the Georgia Education Coalition, the Professional Association of Georgia Educators and the Georgia PTA.

The Senate committee was not scheduled to hold a vote on the matter Monday, but reactions from its members were mixed. Republican Sen. Lindsey Tippins of Cobb County indicated he wanted to see a legislative report on potential financial impact before making a decision.

“We’re casting a lot broader net, whatever the final number is. 58,000 potential (students), that’s seven and a half times what’s currently in the program,” he said. “That’s a heck of an exponentially wider net. I think we need to think about logistics.”

The state could use a more thorough examination of its special education system, but Gooch’s bill could reach a lot of families that are struggling to get help in the current system, said Sen. Jason Anavitarte, a Republican from Paulding County and former member of the school board there.

“I get the budget issue, I’ve seen it at the local level, my family dealt with it growing up, having to get notices from doctors arguing with the school district and arguing with the principals, I get it,” he said. “But at some point, I think we’ve got to move the ball forward.”

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Ross Williams
Ross Williams

Before joining the Georgia Recorder, Ross Williams covered local and state government for the Marietta Daily Journal. His work earned recognition from the Georgia Associated Press Media Editors and the Georgia Press Association, including beat reporting, business writing and non-deadline reporting.