Legislation to expand state-funded scholarships for special-needs students to attend Georgia private schools cleared the General Assembly Monday.
The bill, sponsored by state Sen. Steve Gooch, R-Dahlonega, passed nearly along party lines in the Senate in the face of critics who called it a workaround for controversial private school vouchers.
The bulk of Gooch’s bill aims to 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.
A contentious part of the bill that would have allowed students to secure special-needs scholarships with a doctor’s note was scrapped last week. Opponents argued savvy high-income families could have taken advantage of that provision via doctors who might falsify diagnoses.
“This bill is more narrowly defined to the advantage of the public school system at their request,” Gooch said on the Senate floor Monday. “Those concerns that some of you have from your school boards have been identified and addressed.”
The bill passed by a 30-18 vote in the Senate Monday after squeaking out of the House last week by the barest of margins.
In the House, Floyd County delegates Rep. Katie Dempsey, R-Rome, and Eddie Lumsden, R-Armuchee, voted in favor. Rep. Mitchell Scoggins of Rydal was one of 11 Republicans opposed to the bill.
It now goes to Gov. Brian Kemp’s desk.
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.
Opponents likened Gooch’s bill to school voucher plans that divert tax dollars from K-12 public schools, putting a drain on tight resources for state-funded schools in favor of private schools that tend to have more money per student.
“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,” Sen. Elena Parent, D-Atlanta, said earlier this month.