ATLANTA - The Senate approved legislation Wednesday that would allow the state to offer parents of disabled children taxpayer-funded scholarships to private schools.
Under the Republican-backed bill, which passed 31-23 virtually along party lines, parents who are not satisfied with the quality of special education their child is receiving at a public school could transfer him or her to a private school or another public school.
"Who ultimately has the right to make the decision on what a special-needs child gets in services and where ... the parent or the government?'' Senate President Pro Tempore Eric Johnson, R-Savannah, the bill's sponsor, asked his colleagues during a nearly three-hour debate. "Senate Bill 10 says the parent.''
But opponents said allowing public money to be spent on private schools - even in such a limited way - could lead to a broader voucher program, something education groups and their Democratic allies have fought for years.
"It's a nose under the tent,'' said Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta. "This is a gateway to vouchers and a dismantling of our public school system.''
The legislation is modeled after a voucher program for disabled students in Florida begun in 1999.
It would allow parents of children with certain disabilities - blind and deaf students as well as those with neurological, behavioral or emotional disorders - to apply for a scholarship to a private school.
Scholarships would be limited to what the state would spend on a student if he or she remained in public school.
Johnson said the scholarships would pay an average of about $9,000 per student.
He said that, based on Florida's experience, Georgia could expect about 9,300 students to take part in the program, 5 percent of the 186,000 who would be eligible.
Johnson said the state Department of Education would choose the schools allowed to participate in the program.
He said the selected schools would be required to perform an annual assessment of each student, a provision designed to deflect criticism that the private schools wouldn't be as accountable as public schools, which must meet standards set by federal law.
Some of the bill's supporters came to the Senate well with personal stories of how young family members with disabilities benefited from private schools.
Sen. Seth Harp, R-Midland, talked about a nephew with dyslexia who was failing the ninth grade before transferring to a private school.
"He was marked a failure,'' Harp said. "He's now in his second year of college ... and he will succeed.''
But Sen. Nan Orrock, D-Atlanta, said the bill would divert tax dollars from public schools into private schools.
"There's no additional money in this bill,'' she said. "You're taking the same pie and slicing out some pieces ... sapping resources from the public schools.''
Majority Republicans beat back a series of amendments to the bill proposed by Democrats, including two that would have increased the amount of scholarship money available to each student. Democrats argued that fully funding the scholarships would allow low and middle income parents to take part in the program.
Another defeated amendment would have put the General Assembly on record as limiting taxpayer-funded scholarships to disabled students.
The bill now goes to the House.