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Special needs scholarships bill renews voucher fight

ATLANTA - Most of the education agenda being pushed by Gov. Sonny Perdue and Republican legislative leaders early in this year's General Assembly session is enjoying widespread support.

Organizations representing teachers and school administrators have had little but good to say about the governor's plan to expand his graduation coaches program from Georgia's high schools into the middle schools. The same is true for Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle's proposals to establish more charter schools and career academies.

But the good feelings stop when it comes to legislation that would allow parents of disabled students attending public schools to receive state scholarships to send their kids to private schools.

Although it's much more limited in scope than the private school voucher bills Republicans have pushed unsuccessfully during past sessions, the education lobby and its legislative allies are gearing up to fight anything that smacks of the "v'' word.

"That's sort of a back door approach to vouchers,'' Rep. Jeannette Jamieson, D-Toccoa, a member of the House Education Committee and its former chairman, said of the Georgia Special Needs Scholarship Act.

"Anytime you talk about vouchers, you're talking about a way to fund children going to private schools and depleting the money that's going to public schools.''

The bill, sponsored by Senate President Pro Tempore Eric Johnson, would allow parents of students with certain physical, emotional or learning disabilities who attended a public school during the previous year to apply for a scholarship to attend a private school of their choice.

The state Board of Education would choose which schools would be eligible for the program.

The legislation is modeled after Florida's McKay Scholarships, one of three private school voucher programs begun in that state by former Republican Gov. Jeb Bush, who left office at the beginning of this month after eight years in office.

No budget buster

Johnson, R-Savannah, said Florida's experience with McKay Scholarships shows that a similar program wouldn't break the bank for public schools in Georgia. He said only 5 percent of the Florida students who are eligible for the scholarships are receiving them.

"Parents know that public school systems are doing a good job with 95 percent of special needs students,'' he said. "But there's always going to be a child who wants to go somewhere else.''

Johnson said there's a huge upside to having a program that could help bring students with similar disabilities together in numbers that wouldn't be possible in public schools.

"You could create a school for autism, or for deaf students or blind students,'' he said. "The discipline and self esteem of the students would improve. They end up in a school where they're more comfortable.''

But Tim Callahan, spokesman for the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, said he doesn't believe private schools would be falling over themselves to compete for special-needs students.

"Special education students are very expensive and difficult to educate,'' he said. "Private schools are probably not going to be extending a big welcome mat to them.''

Sis Henry, executive director of the Georgia School Boards Association, also questioned whether private schools could be held accountable for services delivered to special-needs students.

A federal law enacted in 1975 that requires public schools to deliver a range of services to those students doesn't apply to private schools, she said.

"Parents of handicapped children need to understand that services are not guaranteed,'' she said.

Choice lauded

But Sharon Lang of Alpharetta, who has a 6-year-old daughter enrolled in the Forsyth County schools, said public schools aren't necessarily a guarantee of quality special education, either.

She said she hasn't been satisfied with the services being provided to her child, Madison, and would love to have the option of sending her to a private school.

"Any time a parent has a choice, it's great,'' she said. "It's better for competition and quality.''

Lang said she would also like to see the bill include an option allowing parents to transfer their special-needs children to another public school.

Johnson said that's one of two amendments he plans to introduce when the bill reaches the Senate Education Committee.

The other would limit the scholarships to state funds rather than including federal dollars.

Still, the major bone of contention the bill's opponents have is the "slippery slope'' argument that scholarships for special-needs children could lead to a more comprehensive voucher program that would cover all students.

Democrats repeatedly beat back Republican attempts to bring private school vouchers to Georgia during the years that the Democratic Party controlled the legislature.

Concerns over vouchers have also prompted Democrats to oppose a constitutional amendment proposed by Perdue allowing faith-based charities to receive state funds to deliver human services.

Although Democrats were in the minority in the last two legislative sessions, they had enough votes to deny the governor the two-thirds majorities he needed to pass the amendment.

"I feel this bill isn't a particularly sincere effort on behalf of special ed students but a well thought-out effort to get vouchers started in Georgia,'' Callahan said.

But Johnson said there aren't enough votes in the General Assembly to pass a broader vouchers bill, and he has no plans to introduce one.

"The only thing that will create momentum for a broader voucher bill is continued poor performance of public school systems,'' he said.