Proposed Special Needs Voucher Expansion
Bill Analysis: SB 386 (LC 49 0205S)
March 6, 2020
Georgia lawmakers are considering a bill to expand the state’s private school voucher program for special education students, the Special Needs Scholarship program. Senate Bill 386 seeks to loosen eligibility requirements, increasing the number of students who could qualify for a voucher. In doing so, the bill would increase the number of students who lose federal protections for individuals with disabilities.
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 and pull funds out of public schools without reducing the costs of those schools. The Special Needs Scholarship voucher program has never been evaluated despite being in operation for over 10 years. Though some data is available, critical information about the voucher program’s effectiveness is unknown including whether participating private schools provide special education services to students. Before considering an expansion, lawmakers should undertake a comprehensive evaluation to determine whether the program is meeting the needs of Georgia’s students as well as its fiscal impact on school districts and the state.
Expanding Voucher Eligibility and Inadequate Transparency
The General Assembly created the Special Needs Scholarship voucher program in 2007. SB 386 would alter several of the voucher program’s structures including eligibility and transparency requirements.
Currently, students are eligible for a special needs voucher if they meet specific criteria:
- One parent has been a Georgia resident for at least one year 
- Has one or more disabilities including autism, an emotional or behavioral disorder, intellectual disability, or a specific learning disability 
- Spent the prior year in a Georgia public school
- Has 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 386 would open the voucher program to students with a Section 504 plan under the federal Rehabilitation Act and have one of 21 conditions specified in the bill (e.g. autism, emotional or behavioral disorder).  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 also 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 386 is not known though is likely significant. In 2015, Georgia districts reported 28,640 students with Section 504 plans.  The state’s cost of the expanded special needs vouchers could be as high as $28.5 million according to the Georgia Department of Audits and Accounts. 
Students with Section 504 plans have disabilities that require an accommodation for the students to participate in general education classrooms.  These accommodations could be extra time to complete assignments or assistance from nurses available in public schools, but they do not include specialized instruction.
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.
Loss of Student Rights
Increasing the number of students accepting special needs vouchers increases the number of students who lose federal protections provided to individuals with disabilities. The federal Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA) ensures that the rights of students with disabilities to participate fully in public education are protected. When students accept a special needs voucher, they waive these rights. Students qualify for the voucher because they have a disability but move to schools that are not required to provide services specified in their IEPs or, potentially, their Section 504 plans that address their disability.
Unchecked Eligibility & Additional Costs
SB 386 does not require or provide a mechanism to re-evaluate voucher students and 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 386 fails to require re-evaluation, a student could get a special needs voucher for a condition that is subsequently successfully 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 formula, the QBE formula (QBE). The QBE provides different amounts for students at different grade levels and different categories. For example, a larger amount is allotted for a first-grade student than a 10th-grade student to keep class sizes small in early grades. Under SB 386, 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.
Some 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 programs and determine whether the voucher program is effective.
SB 386 does not require the state to collect information on the number of students who qualify for a special needs voucher based on having a Section 504 plan, a diagnosis from a physician or psychologist or adoption from foster care. These data should be gathered and included in the program’s annual report, which is prepared by the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement (GOSA).
There are several steps lawmakers should take to better serve Georgia’s students rather than expanding the special needs voucher program as proposed under SB 386. They include:
- Enhance Transparency and Accountability of the Special Needs Voucher Program
SB 386 would require a survey of participating parents. Such a survey would provide valuable information, particularly if the instrument included former parents and examined the provision of special education services and protections under the IDEA to participating students. However, a parent survey is not sufficient for a full understanding of the program’s impact.
The special needs voucher has never been evaluated, though it has operated for over 10 years. A comprehensive evaluation is essential to understand whether the program is effectively meeting the needs of students. Undertaking an evaluation is particularly urgent, given the negative impact voucher programs in other states have had on student academic achievement. At a minimum, Georgia should annually collect:
- Percentage of special needs voucher students who are direct certification to measure family income
- Voucher student retention rate for each participating private school and for the program, in total and disaggregated by race, gender and income level
- Average number of years students receive a voucher disaggregated by race, gender and income
- Percent of voucher students who return to public schools annually and at what grade levels
- Assessments used by private schools to measure student academic progress
The state should also tighten existing measures of academic progress. Currently, participating private schools select the assessments used to gauge student learning, which can vary in quality. Participating schools should administer the Georgia Milestones, the state’s assessments of student learning, the Georgia Alternate Assessment, the state’s assessment for students with significant cognitive disabilities, or the MAP exam, which is being piloted by a consortium of Georgia districts as an alternative assessment to Milestones.
A survey of all exiting families should be administered by GOSA. This would provide information on their reasons for leaving and their experiences in the special needs voucher program.
- Invest in Student Supports
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 500 to 700 students.   Many students qualify for Section 504 plans because they have an emotional or behavioral disorder. Ensuring schools have sufficient professionals to support students in these areas is critical.
 The residency requirement is waived for children of active-duty military service members stationed in Georgia.
 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.
 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.
 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
 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
 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
 National Association of School Psychologists. (2010). Model for Comprehensive and Integrated School Psychological Services. Bethesda, MD: National Association of School Psychologists. Retrieved from: https://www.nasponline.org/assets/Documents/ Standards%20and%20Certification/Standards/2_PracticeModel.pdf