Proposed Expansion of Special Needs Scholarship School Voucher Program

Bill Analysis: Senate Bill 47 (LC 49 0328)

Georgia lawmakers are considering a bill to expand the state’s private school voucher program for special education students, the Special Needs Scholarship program. Sponsored by Sen. Steve Gooch (R-Dahlonega), SB 47 seeks to loosen eligibility requirements, increasing the number of students who qualify for a voucher. With this change, the bill would expand the number of students who lose federal legal protections for individuals with disabilities when they enroll in schools or programs outside public education.

 

PAGE does not support private school vouchers, and its members have consistently opposed expanding Georgia’s existing voucher programs or adding a new voucher program. Voucher programs have a poor record on student learning. The Special Needs Scholarship voucher program has never been evaluated, despite being in operation for over 10 years, and available data is limited. Before expanding it, lawmakers should undertake a comprehensive evaluation to determine whether the special needs voucher program meets the needs of Georgia’s students and should strengthen the program’s accountability and transparency measures.

 

More Vouchers Under New Eligibility Standard

 

The most significant change to the special needs voucher program proposed in SB 47 is broadening its eligibility criteria. Currently, students are eligible for a special needs voucher if they:

 

  • Have one parent who has been a Georgia resident for at least one year (see footnote 1)

  • Have one or more disabilities including autism, an emotional or behavioral disorder, intellectual disability, or a specific learning disability (see footnote 2)

  • Spent the prior year in a Georgia public school

  • Have an Individualized Education Plan (IEP), which has specific requirements under the federal Individual with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)

 

Students with an IEP have a disability that affects their educational performance and/or their ability to learn. These students need individualized special education services and possibly other supports.

 

SB 47 would open the voucher program to students with a Section 504 plan under the federal Rehabilitation Act and who have one of 21 conditions specified in the bill (e.g. autism, emotional or behavioral disorder) (see footnote 3). Students can also qualify for the program if they have a diagnosis related to one of these conditions from a physician or psychologist but do not have a Section 504 plan. The bill extends eligibility to students who received preschool special education services as well as those who have been adopted or placed in permanent guardianship from foster care. The number of students who would be eligible under the expanded criteria in SB 47 is not known though is likely significant. In 2015, Georgia districts reported 28,640 students with Section 504 plans (see footnote 4).

 

Students with Section 504 plans have disabilities that require an accommodation for these students to participate in general education classrooms (see footnote 5), including extra time to complete assignments or assistance from nurses available in public schools. Specialized instruction is not included as an accommodation.

 

The process of approving students for 504 plans is less rigorous and intensive than approving an IEP as they do not require specialized instruction tailored to individual students. 504 plans are also granted for conditions that are temporary, treatable and/or can be readily managed in public schools particularly with assistance from nurses.

 

SB 47 would also waive the one-year public school attendance requirement for students who:

 

  • Have a parent on active military duty

  • Have been adopted or are in foster care

  • Previously received a special needs voucher

  • Apply for a voucher in the 2021-2022 school year and were enrolled in a public school in Georgia during a period when student enrollment was counted in the 2019-2020 or 2020-2021 school years, per state law

 

No Guarantee of Student Support and Inadequate Safeguards

 

Public schools serve every student who enrolls, including providing the additional services those with extra needs require. They also report extensive information on students as well as their operations, including financial data, to their communities. Private schools participating in the special needs voucher program are not held to comparable standards despite receiving state funds.

 

Loss of Student Right to Services

 

Increasing the number of students accepting special needs vouchers increases the number of students who lose federal protections provided to children with disabilities. The federal Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA) protects the rights of students with disabilities to participate fully in public education. When students accept a special needs voucher, they waive these rights. Though disability triggers student eligibility for the voucher program, by leaving the public school setting, students lose the legal right to the additional services to address their disability.   

 

Unmonitored Eligibility & Additional Costs

 

SB 47 does not require re-evaluation of voucher students to determine their continued eligibility for a Section 504 plan or their initial diagnosis from a physician or psychologist. This differs from federal regulations, which require re-evaluation of students’ conditions every three years or more frequently if conditions warrant to determine if students continue to qualify for Section 504. Because SB 47 fails to require re-evaluation, a student could get a special needs voucher for a condition that is subsequently treated and no longer requires an accommodation.

 

The bill could increase costs to the state because it fails to adjust for variations in funding levels under the state’s K-12 funding mechanism, the Quality Basic Education (QBE) formula. QBE provides distinct amounts for students at different grade levels and various categories. For example, a larger amount is allotted for a first-grade student than a 10th-grade student in order to keep class sizes small in early grades. Under SB 47, a student who qualifies for a special needs voucher in first grade would receive a voucher for approximately $3,600. The student would continue to receive that amount when he or she is in the 10th grade, even though his or her resident public school would have received about $2,800, a gap of about $800.

 

Inadequate Transparency

 

Information about participating voucher students and private schools is collected annually and disseminated by the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement. It 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. Basic information, such as graduation rates, is not collected. Parents are further hindered in understanding and comparing their children’s learning experience in public and private schools because voucher students do not take state assessments.

 

Little information is required of participating private schools. Unlike public school districts, which are audited annually, participating private schools are not required to submit financial audits.

 

Recommendations

 

Instead of expanding an unproven program, lawmakers can better serve Georgia’s students by addressing gaps in the special needs voucher program and making strategic investments in students’ well-being.

 

1. Enhance Transparency and Accountability of the Special Needs Voucher Program

 

  • Collect and report the following data annually:
     

    • The number and percent of voucher students whose family/household income is less than 125 percent of the federal poverty level; between 125 and 250 percent of the federal poverty level; between 250 and 400 percent of the federal poverty level; and, above 400 percent of the federal poverty level

    • Voucher student retention rate for participating private schools and for the program, disaggregated by race, gender and income level

    • Average number of years students receive a voucher disaggregated by race, gender and income

    • Number and percent of voucher students who return to public schools annually in total and disaggregated by race, gender, income level, and grade level

    • Assessments used by private schools to measure student academic progress

 

  • Monitor student academic progress by requiring participating voucher students to take one of the following assessments annually:
     

    • Georgia Milestones, the state assessment of student learning

    • Georgia Alternate Assessment, the state assessment for students with significant cognitive disabilities

    • MAP or Navvy exams, which are being evaluated as an alternative to Milestones

 

Results should be reported for participating private schools that enroll 10 or more voucher students and for the program, disaggregated by race, gender and income level.

 

  • Safeguard public funds by requiring annual financial audits of participating private schools and site visits for all new private schools in the program

 

  • Conduct a comprehensive evaluation every five years that includes at a minimum:
     

    • Comparison of participating students’ test scores on state assessments to those of public school students with similar socioeconomic backgrounds

    • Number and percent of participating students who received services specified in their IEP or Section 504 plans

 

2. Invest in Student Supports

 

Ensure public schools are better resourced to meet student needs:

 

  • Provide funding for school counselors for special education and gifted students

  • Lower the counselor to student funding ratio to 1:250 from 1:450 in the QBE formula to align Georgia with best practice standard

  • Reduce the social worker to student funding ratio to 1:250 from 1:2475 in the QBE formula to align Georgia with best practice standard

 

Special education and gifted students do not currently earn funding for school counselors under the QBE formula. Georgia funds one school counselor for every 450 students and one school social worker for every 2,475 students. These ratios are above recommended best practice: one counselor per 250 students and one social worker for 250 students (see footnote 6) (see footnote 7).

Footnote 1:

The residency requirement is waived for children of active duty military service members stationed in Georgia.

 

Footnote 2:

The full list of qualifying disabilities is: autism; deaf/blind; deaf/hard of hearing; emotional and behavioral disorder; intellectual disability; orthopedic impairment; other health impairment; specific learning disability; speech-language impairment; traumatic brain injury; or, visual impairment.
 

Footnote 3:

Eligible conditions are: attention deficit hyperactivity disorder; autism spectrum disorder; bipolar disorder; cancer; cerebral palsy; cystic fibrosis; deafness; Down syndrome; drug or alcohol abuse; dual sensory impairment; dyslexia; emotional or behavioral disorder; epilepsy; hearing impairment; intellectual disability; muscular dystrophy; specific learning disability; spina bifida; traumatic brain injury; visual impairment; any rare disease identified by the National Organization for Rare Disorders.

Footnote 4:

Georgia Department of Audits and Accounts. (Fiscal Note for Senate Bill 386 (LC 49 0125). March 5, 2020. Retrieved from https://opb.georgia.gov/budget-information/fiscal-notes/2019-2020-regular-session#toc-2020-education

Foonote 5:

Georgia Department of Education. (n.d.) Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973: Guidance for local education agencies. Retrieved from https://www.gadoe.org/Curriculum-Instruction-and-Assessment/Student-Support-Teams/Documents/GaDOESection504Guidance.pdf

Footnote 6:

National Association of Social Workers. (2012). NASW Standards for School Social Work Services. Retrieved from: https://www.socialworkers.org/LinkClick.aspx?fileticket=1Ze4-9-Os7E%3D&portalid=0

Footnote 7:

American School Counselor Association. (n.d.) The Role of the School Counselor. Retrieved from https://www.schoolcounselor.org/getmedia/ee8b2e1b-d021-4575-982c-c84402cb2cd2/Role-Statement.pdf

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