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Legislation aimed at providing special-needs students with state-funded scholarships to attend public schools in Georgia that critics have called a costly voucher plan passed out of the state Senate on Wednesday.
Sponsored by Sen. Steve Gooch, R-Dahlonega, the bill – which passed 30-23 nearly along party lines – would make special-needs scholarships available for students with a wide range of conditions including autism, Down syndrome, behavioral impairments and drug or alcohol abuse.
Students would have to be enrolled in Georgia public schools for at least a year unless they were adopted children, come from military families or faced challenges with online learning during the COVID-19 pandemic, Gooch said.
“We believe that during this pandemic and this national emergency, we should not punish the child or the parent, especially those with special needs who were impacted the worst during the lockdown last year,” Gooch said from the Senate floor on Wednesday.
“This is not an open voucher system for Georgia,” he said. “This is limited to special needs children.”
Opponents likened Gooch’s bill to school voucher plans that draw criticism as a drain on state funding for K-12 public schools.
Savvy high-income families could take advantage of loose requirements and oversight in Gooch’s proposal, potentially securing special-needs qualifications with a doctor’s note, said Sen. Elena Parent, D-Atlanta.
“Families with the resources, the know-how and who live in proximity to private schools will be the beneficiaries of the expanded eligibility, while rural and working-class taxpayers will be left footing the bill for a program whose ultimate cost we can’t even accurately tabulate,” Parent said.
“These voucher programs are bad for kids, bad for families, bad for schools and bad for Georgia.”
Gooch and other supporters dismissed the notion scholarships would be harvested by wealthy families that game the system, stressing the focus is on boosting educational opportunities for special-needs children in Georgia.
The bill now heads to the state House of Representatives.