ATLANTA -- Special-needs children in Georgia may soon be able to forgo the required year of enrollment in a public school before they can receive a voucher that uses taxpayer dollars to pay for private school.
State lawmakers are considering a bill that would allow children with severe disabilities to begin receiving a voucher without ever attending a public school. It's part of a push by GOP leaders to expand the state's limited voucher program, which is reserved only for special needs children.
State lawmakers have tried for years to broaden the list of voucher recipients to military families, students in foster care and others, but the state's ailing economy has stalled the measures from advancing. The slimmed-down voucher legislation working its way through the statehouse this year has a good chance of passing with Republican lawmakers pushing bills that will appeal to conservative voters across the state come November.
The entire General Assembly is up for re-election this year and will hit the campaign trail once the legislative session ends next week.
GOP leaders said the voucher bill is aimed at cutting red tape for medically fragile children who aren't able to attend public school and need the help of private programs.
"I urge everyone to vote for these children -- not voting for systems, not voting for parties, not partisanship," said Senate Majority Leader Chip Rogers, who has pushed for vouchers for years.
But opponents -- including the state Department of Education -- say the bill only opens the door to the state handing out vouchers to any child who wants one. And vouchers, like a recently approved constitutional amendment allowing the state to create charter schools over the objection of local school boards, only siphon much needed money from cash-strapped public school districts, critics say.
Georgia's schools face $1 billion in cuts and dwindling local property tax revenue this year.
State schools Superintendent John Barge said the voucher program sends taxpayer dollars to private schools, which do not have to meet state standards or report student progress.
"I have already gone on record opposing any expansion of vouchers without accountability, and this one is no different," Barge said. "We are accountable to the taxpayers of Georgia for the dollars we give to our schools, and unless schools receiving vouchers have the same level playing field as all of our public schools, there's no way of knowing whether or not those students are receiving a better education."
Georgia's voucher program began in 2007 and has more than 2,500 students enrolled. That's up from 1,600 students in 2009.
The law defines special needs as students with an individualized education program written by the school district. That can include children who are autistic, deaf, blind, disabled and emotionally disturbed. It also can apply to a student with a learning disability or speech impairment.
Under the legislation, the state Board of Education would be responsible for deciding whether a child's medical condition warrants waiving the one-year public school enrollment requirement. The board would also be able to force the local school district to speed up the process of writing an IEP for the child, which can take months depending on the student's disability and often involves numerous meetings with parents and experts to work out the best strategy for teaching the student.
Last year, students in the voucher program received up to $14,000 in state funding to attend private school, with an average award of $6,200.
Nearly 200 private schools are signed up for the program. Though students can use the voucher to transfer to another public school, the vast majority choose private schools.
Atlanta resident Heather Patton uses the voucher to send her autistic 8-year-old son, Jackson, to a private school that can help him with anxiety. She said Jackson lost 10 percent of his bodyweight in two months at a public school because he couldn't cope with the loud noises in the cafeteria.
She said she knew after six months he needed a private school that could cater to his needs but had to wait a full year to receive the voucher, which pays about 20 percent of his private school tuition.
"It's really a hard thing to be a parent and say, `Do we just stick it out for six months so we qualify for this money?' You think about someone who is medically fragile -- why would you want to put them through that when they will be suffering and they can go someplace and get the help they need?" Patton said.
National experts say 11 states, Washington, D.C., and Milwaukee, Wis., offer voucher programs for low-income or special-needs students. No state has a universal voucher program for all students.
Georgia lawmakers have until Thursday to approve all remaining legislation before the session ends, including the voucher bill. It passed both the House and Senate, but senators amended the measure slightly, which means it must be approved by the House again before it goes to the governor's desk.
GOP leaders have pushed for other so-called school choice measures this session, including passing a controversial constitutional amendment that would allow an appointed state commission to create charter schools even if local districts have rejected them. The legislation had some Democratic support, giving it the required two-thirds majority in both chambers.
The measure now goes to voters for approval on the November ballot.
Lawmakers are also considering a bill that would allow students attending charter schools that don't offer clubs or sports to participate in those activities at nearby traditional public schools. Supporters say charter school students should have the opportunity to take part in extracurricular activities, but critics say schools shouldn't have to pay for activities for students who choose to attend charter schools.
House Bill 181: http://www.legis.ga.gov