(The Center Square) – Gov. Brian Kemp signed a trio of bills Thursday to expand education options in Georgia.
Senate Bill 47 expands the state's Special Needs Scholarship program to students with 504 Plans. The program offers scholarships for students with individualized education plans to attend a private school or a public school of their choice.
"COVID-19 has certainly highlighted the challenges that families face and finding the right education for their child, especially those with special needs," Kemp said Thursday during a bill signing ceremony at the state Capitol. "This bill will give more parents greater options to ensure their child has every opportunity to achieve their dreams."
Public school students with certain disorders on 504 plans are eligible to apply for the program under the new law. It opens the program to children who are adopted, in foster care or from a military family based in Georgia.
A 504 plan provides students with extra time for assessments, breakout instruction, or modified assignments, among other things. The bill expands the program to all 58,000 public school children in Georgia currently on 504 plans or with a diagnosis from a physician.
SB 47 allows preschoolers with either plan to qualify for the program and adds reporting requirements for the participating schools.
Critics of the bill said voucher programs redirect public school funding to private schools. Proponents said the programs cut government costs and help marginalized communities.
"Gov. Kemp and lawmakers in the General Assembly have done right by Georgia's special-needs community, and we applaud them for it," Georgia Center for Opportunity Vice President of Public Policy Buzz Brockway said. "Coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic where so many families of students with special needs suffered disproportionately due to closed classrooms, it's unconscionable to think we wouldn't do everything in our power to lighten their load. This is an important first step as we move toward helping more marginalized communities access quality education options."
SB 246 ensures the state or local entities will not regulate learning pods.
"I am a firm believer that government should not try to tell you how to educate your child," Kemp said.
HB 606 adds the Georgia Independent School Association to the list of accrediting agencies for the HOPE Scholarship. The Georgia Independent School Association is an association of private, independent and parochial schools throughout the state. The HOPE scholarship covers around 75% of college tuition for college freshmen.
Georgia Public Policy Foundation President and CEO Kyle Wingfield said the legislation gives parents the flexibility to do what's best for their child.
"By putting more children in a setting that better fits their needs, we would expect to see more children doing well in school, finishing school, getting into college and finishing college," Wingfield said. "There is research to indicate that that happens with the choice programs that Georgia offers, and so it's not about whether this school is good or bad, or whether they do a good job. It's every child has unique needs."