Senate Greenlights Expansion of Special Needs Voucher Program
The Senate passed SB 47, which expands the Special Needs Scholarship, a voucher program for students with Individualized Education Plans (IEPs). Authored by Sen. Steve Gooch (R-Dahlonega), the bill would expand the program to students with Section 504 Plans or one of approximately 20 conditions including ADHD, dyslexia, and drug and alcohol abuse. PAGE has identified multiple concerns with the bill, which are outlined in an analysis of the bill available here.
Gooch asserted on the Senate floor that the expansion is necessary for students with extra needs who are not well-served by public schools, a number he said would likely be no more than 3 percent of eligible students. He said that it has been difficult for public schools to provide additional services to students during the pandemic and offering more private school vouchers would give parents the means to better address their students’ needs. Sen. Bruce Thompson (R-White) described the bill as giving students with special needs hope for the future and said that funding for public schools is a separate issue from the voucher program.
Sen. Elena Parent (D-Atlanta) contended that the General Assembly has not provided school districts with the funding needed to fully support students with special needs. She cited the current austerity cut of $383 million to the Quality Basic Education (QBE) formula, as well as lack of state funding for supports for these students including dyslexia screening and small class sizes. Describing the program as a subsidy for families with greater financial resources, Parent noted that QBE has been fully funded only twice since 2003, leaving special needs students who remain in public schools worse off. She stated that the voucher program requires students to waive their federally protected rights to additional services and lacks eligibility safeguards and accountability measures. Sen. Jen Jordan (D-Atlanta) described SB 47 as a backdoor voucher program for students who do not require specialized instruction as students with IEPs do.
Senators approved SB 47 by a 30-23 vote. SB 47 now moves to the House.
House Passes PAGE-Supported Teacher Tax Credit Bill
The House passed HB 32 by Rep. Dave Belton (R-Buckhead), a PAGE-supported bill that would award a $3,000 tax credit for teachers who are newly hired by certain rural schools or schools performing in the lowest 5 percent, based on Georgia's College and Career Ready Performance Index (CCRPI) school accountability system. PAGE testified in support of the legislation during the committee process.
Senate Judiciary Passes Bill Regarding Obscene Materials and Schools
The Senate Judiciary Committee passed SB 226, sponsored by Sen. Jason Anavitarte (R-Dallas), requiring local boards of education to adopt policies providing for a complaint resolution process to address school media material including books and movies that objecting parents find obscene. The legislation requires the Georgia Department of Education to adopt related guidance for schools. When presenting to the committee, Anavitarte characterized the new version of the bill which passed today as a compromise. “I think this is not the ideal bill,” he said, but it creates an "opportunity for parents to have a vehicle for complaints … there needs to be transparency when these issues come up.” Several lobbyists representing the Faith and Freedom Coalition, the Georgia Mission Baptist Board, and the Family Policy Alliance testified in support of the SB 226 but expressed disappointment that the version of the legislation which passed today lacks stronger penalties. SB 226 now moves to Senate Rules.
Senate Ed Passes Transgender Student Athlete Bill
The Senate Education and Youth Committee passed the following bills, which now move on to Senate Rules:
SB 266, the “Save Girls Sports Act,” by Sen. Marty Harbin (R-Tyrone) would prohibit transgender female athletes from participating on girls sports team. An out-of-state representative of a group called the Alliance Defending Freedom cited cases in other states in which female athletes had been denied recognition and college scholarships due to unfair competition from fellow athletes born genetically male. When pressed repeatedly, the representative could cite no instances in Georgia in which this issue has caused problems.
SB 106 by Sen. Gail Davenport (D-Jonesboro) would require schools to provide wraparound services to students in Pre-K to third grade before expelling or suspending those students for more than five days. The bill’s mandate was softened to a discretionary requirement before it passed the committee.
SB 240 by Sen. Sally Harrell (D-Atlanta) allows local schools to require all students to complete instructional programs in the critical roles elections play in the democratic way of life. SB 240 is a discretionary bill.
Gov. Kemp Prioritizes Johnson & Johnson Vaccine for Educators
Gov. Brian Kemp and other state leaders held a news conference to provide an update on Georgia vaccine distribution. Kemp announced the state will prioritize about 83,000 doses of Johnson & Johnson vaccine for educators and school staff who will be eligible to receive the vaccine beginning March 8. He cited the need for schools to return to full-time, face-to-face instruction and said that he will work with school districts to make this happen.
Kemp also announced the state will open five additional mass vaccination sites in Chatham, Ware, Washington, Bartow, and Muscogee counties to assist with an expected increase in demand for vaccines with expanded eligibility.
Senate Passes Several Other Education Bills
The Senate passed the following education bills in addition to the special needs voucher program expansion:
SB 42 by Sen. Jeff Mullis (R-Chickamauga) untethers student discipline data from Georgia's School Climate Star Rating. See the PAGE Day 9 report for more on policymakers’ considerations of balancing student discipline transparency with complaints by educators that the current star rating system deters schools from adequately addressing some discipline issues.
SB 59 by Sen. John Albers. (R-Roswell) changes charter school system grant amounts, allows additional educators employed by charter schools to participate in the State Health Benefit Plan, and requires local boards of education to make educational facilities available to local charters or provide them a facility stipend.
SB 66 by Sen. Jason Anavitarte (R-Dallas) proposes the merger of the Georgia Foundation for Public Education, which is connected to the Georgia Department of Education and seeks grants and other funding to support public schools, and the Public Education Innovation Fund Foundation, which is overseen by the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement (GOSA) and is funded through donations for which donors receive tax credits. The aim of the merger is to streamline operations and clarify the resulting entity's role.
Bill to Allow Changing of Beneficiary in TRS Heard in Committee
The Senate Retirement Committee held a hearing on SB 267 by Sen. Sheikh Rahman (D-Lawrenceville) that would allow retired Teacher Retirement System members who elected an optional retirement allowance that included one or more beneficiaries to change a beneficiary one time every three years. The member’s retirement allowance or allowance to a named beneficiary would be recalculated to ensure the cost of the benefit would be actuarially equivalent to the allowance in effect prior to naming a new beneficiary.
Buster Evans, executive director of TRS, spoke on the bill to request more study on how this bill would affect the system. The bill did not receive a vote at the meeting.