Senate Education Committee Hears Special Needs Private School Voucher Expansion – Vote Expected Wednesday
The Senate Education and Youth Committee met today to consider SB 47, legislation sponsored by Sen. Steve Gooch (R-Dahlonega), expanding one of Georgia’s two existing private school voucher programs. Committee Chair Chuck Payne (R-Dalton) opened the meeting with an announcement that no vote would be taken at today’s hearing but that committee members may vote on the bill Wednesday, Feb. 10. Gooch presented the bill with the assistance of a lobbyist from the American Federation for Children, an organization which promotes private school vouchers. The senator explained that his legislation would expand Georgia’s current special needs scholarship program, which is currently open to students with Individualized Education Plans (IEPs), to include students with 504 accommodations. Learn more about the difference between IEPs and 504 plans in a Georgia Department of Education (GaDOE) resource HERE.
Claire Suggs, PAGE senior education policy analyst, testified in opposition to the bill, citing a lack of longitudinal data regarding private school support and outcomes for students with IEPs in the existing voucher program. Among the most significant concerns is that when students depart public schools for private schools accepting the voucher, students give up their federal rights and protections for special services. Policymakers have not included a mechanism to assess which special needs voucher students receive special services at private schools, which students forgo the services, and how this impacts student outcomes. Read more PAGE analysis of SB 47 HERE.
Suggs was one of several public education advocates who addressed the committee. The advocates cited concern regarding the bill’s impact on public school students, loss of federal rights, and the ongoing funding cut to Georgia public schools. A GaDOE representative reported that 58,000 Georgia students currently receive 504 accommodations with wide variation in plan type.
Committee members debated how many of these students would participate in the expanded voucher program, should SB 47 pass. Sen. Elena Parent (D-Atlanta) asked Gooch if he would prioritize students from low-income families by adding a means test to the bill. Gooch responded that he would not support this change. Sen. Lindsey Tippins (R-Marietta) asked Gooch for a fiscal note on the bill. Gooch agreed.
In conjunction with PAGE advocacy, Georgia educators should consider reaching out to members of the Senate Education Committee and to their elected state senator, in advance of Wednesday’s potential vote. Educators can access their senator’s contact info HERE. As always educators should contact policymakers using their personal (not school) email account and electronic device, and contact policymakers outside of instructional time. The PAGE SB 47 analysis serves as a helpful resource, but the most compelling advocacy also demonstrates educators’ commitment to the students they serve and seeks to build a lasting connection between educators and their elected officials.
Gov. Brian Kemp Announces Massive Broadband Expansion for Middle Georgia
Gov. Brian Kemp was joined by Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, House Speaker David Ralston, and leadership from Georgia Electric Membership Corporation (EMC) to announce an expansion of broadband internet into areas served by Central Georgia EMC and Southern Rivers Energy. The two EMCs will partner with Conexon, a fiber broadband company, to provide high-speed internet to 80,000 homes in the following counties: Bibb, Butts, Clayton, Coweta, Crawford, Fayette, Henry, Jasper, Jones, Lamar, Meriwether, Monroe, Morgan, Newton, Pike, Putnam, Spalding, and Upson.
The three companies will combine to invest more than $210 million in the project. Work is expected to begin as soon as June 2021.
Multiple speakers referenced school closures and a shift to virtual learning brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic as a catalyst for this expansion. One of PAGE’s top legislative priorities for 2021 includes investing in broadband and technology that facilitates learning in classrooms, at home, and in other settings. CLICK HERE to learn more. PAGE commends Central Georgia EMC, Southern Rivers Energy, Conexon, and state leaders for providing this critical service for rural Georgia.
For more information on the project, CLICK HERE.
Correction of PAGE Week in Review from Week Four
In PAGE’s “Week in Review” for legislative week four sent on Sunday, Feb. 7, the report incorrectly stated that student achievement data is not required or made available to the public regarding Georgia’s Special Needs Scholarship, a program that could potentially be expanded by SB 47. Information about participating voucher students and private schools is collected annually and disseminated by the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement. However, this data falls short of what is necessary to understand the needs and experiences of students in the program, identify needed improvements, and determine whether the voucher program is effective.