- Associated Press - Monday, March 22, 2021

ATLANTA (AP) - A Georgia House committee is approving a plan that would broaden eligibility for a program that pays for special education students to attend private schools, but the House’s version would not open the gate as widely as senators sought.

The House Education Committee voted 11-5 on Monday for Senate Bill 47, sending it to the full House for more debate.

Several other bills that would expand subsidies for private schools and homeschooling have failed, leaving the special education as the one most likely to advance.

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 30-23 proposed allowing students with a 504 plan or a diagnosis of a particular disability to qualify. That raised concerns that parents might get 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. The state Board of Education would make rules on what students are eligible.

“This bill is narrowly defined for the special needs students in our state,” said Sen. Steve Gooch, a Dahlonega Republican sponsoring the measure.

He argues that relatively few students are likely to seek access to the expanded program, based on experience with those currently eligible.

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, Gooch said, he believes fewer than 2,000 students would be added.

Parents whose children already benefit from the program told lawmakers that an expansion would help more students who are struggling. Patricia Nealy, a Clayton County parent, said her autistic son moved to three separate public schools before she decided he needed a nonpublic option.

“I know there are thousands of students who would be able to take advantage but do not have the access,” Nealy said. “The traditional school environment does not work for everyone.”

Education groups still oppose the bill, saying they’re against diverting money from public schools and saying the current program largely serves students from metro Atlanta, because few specialized private schools are available in the rest of the state.

They also say the program fails to re-evaluate whether a child still needs special services, as would happen in a public school, and doesn’t track academic achievement.

“We’ve got to check on the kids,” said Robert Costley, executive director of the Georgia Association of Educational Leaders.


Follow Jeff Amy on Twitter at http://twitter.com/jeffamy.

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