ATLANTA — A controversial bill expanding a state-funded school voucher program created in 2007 has cleared the Georgia House of Representatives by the barest of margins.
House lawmakers passed the legislation 91-71 late Friday, largely along party lines. To gain passage in the House, bills must receive the support of a minimum of 91 of the chamber’s 180 members.
The bill, which already had squeezed through the Senate by one vote more than the minimum required, would expand a state program that allows special-needs student in Georgia to receive state-funded scholarships to attend private schools.
Because of changes the House made to the bill, it must return to the Senate to gain final passage. Sen. Chuck Hufstetler, R-Rome, was among those supporting it during the March 3 original vote.
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.
The legislation would grow the 13-year-old program by increasing the number of conditions that would qualify a student for a scholarship. Conditions not listed in the 2007 bill include attention deficit disorder, dyslexia, cerebral palsy, cancer and drug or alcohol abuse.
The bill also would ease restrictions requiring students to have attended a public school the year before enrolling in the program.
“Public schools are doing a good job,” Rep. Will Wade, R-Dawsonville, who carried the bill in the House, said at the start of a lengthy debate on the bill. “(But) our responsibility in this state is to ensure that every child has a chance for a quality education.”
As was the case back in 2007, House Democrats attacked the bill as a back-door attempt to put Georgia on the path toward a broader voucher program that would divert tax dollars from public schools.
“We cannot disinvest in our public schools,” said Rep. David Dreyer, D-Atlanta. “That’s what this bill does, remove resources.”
Rep. Winfred Dukes, D-Albany, said the bill’s impact would be felt particularly in rural Georgia, where private schools are in short supply.
“How does this bill help people in rural Georgia?” he asked. “We don’t have these facilities for our kids to go to.”
Wade denied Democrats’ charges that the bill was aimed at legalizing a broader voucher program for all students.
“This is not a slippery slope,” he said. “This is to help those students who are currently looking for a small option that isn’t available (in public schools).”
“I know many families whose lives have been transformed by this program, and many more would be if they eligible,” added Rep. Wes Cantrell, R-Woodstock.
Rome News-Tribune night editor Diane Wagner added local content to this report.