Potential Voucher Expansion Leaves Students and Parents at a Loss

Bill Analysis: Senate Bill 386 (LC 49 0125)

Established in 2007, the Georgia Special Needs Scholarship (GSNS) is a voucher that allows parents of students with disabilities to pay for private education programs using money previously allocated for public schooling. The voucher is available to students with an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) who have attended a public school for at least one year. The amount allocated for a student equals the lesser of: (1) the amount of state money directed to that student in a public school or (2) the private school’s tuition and fees. In the first year of the program, the state paid $5,417,425 for 899 students. In FY 2019, 4,873 students enrolled in private schools using the program at an average cost of $6,293 per voucher, for a total of $33,205,756 paid by the state of Georgia to private schools.[1]

Senate Bill 386 proposes expanding eligibility of the Georgia Special Needs Scholarship to students who have educational accommodations or services under Section 504 of the federal Rehabilitation Act of 1973. These 504 plans primarily deal with protections from discrimination for students with disabilities.

Comparatively, IEPs ensure students necessary changes to the learning environment and are attached to increased federal and state funding for recipients’ education. All students with an IEP automatically have 504 plans, but not all students eligible for 504 plans qualify as having a disability under the legal definition of disability as outlined in the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).[2] Like students with IEPs, students with 504 plans have rights in federal statute for a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) regardless of the nature of the disability.[3]

Students Lose Federal Protections and Education Funding

Students who use voucher programs to attend private schools forfeit certain civil rights protections provided under federal law to prevent discrimination based on disability.[4] These protections outline the requirement to serve students with 504 plans in an appropriate setting, without discrimination in discipline due to a child’s disability and without cost to the student or their family.[5] Due to the potential loss of these protections, a coalition of disability rights organizations led by the National Disability Rights Network filed a brief opposing vouchers in the U.S. Supreme Court case Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue.[6] The brief begins:

“For nearly fifty years, children with disabilities have relied on key federal laws to ensure that they receive the education to which they are entitled and are protected from discrimination and segregation in public schools. School voucher and tax-credit programs, including the Montana program at issue in this case, risk eroding these decades of progress. They redirect public money to private schools, which often fail to offer appropriate or integrated education to students with disabilities and commonly exclude them outright.”[7]

Students that utilize the GSNS also lose out on thousands of dollars in education funding. Participants in the voucher program are only guaranteed state funds to pay for private school tuition, forfeiting federal and local dollars meant to support their education.[8]

In FY 2018, students in Georgia’s public schools received $12,200 per student in state, local and federal dollars.[9] Participants in this voucher program would receive on average $3,600 per year.[10]

Furthermore, when vouchers redirect public money to private schools the students that remain in the public school system are provided less overall funding for services. The loss of funds based on students participating in this voucher can have negative effects on students in schools that struggle with fixed costs, especially with smaller enrollments.[11] Specifically, students in smaller, more rural schools could see services cut due to the loss of state funding.

Parents Lose School Accountability and Institutional Support

A report authored by the United States Government Accountability Office found that 83 percent of students participating in private school choice programs similar to the GSNS “…were in a program that provided either no information about changes in IDEA rights or provided information that [the U.S. Department of Education] confirmed contained inaccuracies about these changes.”[12] Parents who choose to participate in this voucher also lose out on key school protections such as the right to FAPE even when information is properly conveyed.

If SB 386 is passed, more students will be eligible to use state money to attend schools that lack basic accountability mechanisms:

  • Participating private schools in Georgia do not have to be fully accredited by a licensed accreditation agency in order to receive state funds. Nine private schools that educated 110 students through the voucher in FY 2019 were either provisionally accredited or labeled “In Process.”[13]
  • Participating schools are also not required to conduct an unconditional annual audit or independent financial review. Similar voucher programs in other states like Utah and Wisconsin require this provision.[14]
  • Teachers in participating private schools are not required to hold a bachelor’s degree.[15]

Consequently, the eligibility expansion of the GSNS via SB 386 would represent increased use of state funding for schools that offer parents fewer legal assurances of quality and safety.

Program Costs

The state cost for the Georgia Special Needs Scholarship has grown on average by 19.3 percent, or $2.5 million, each year.[16] This cost growth is primarily due to increased participation, although the average amount per voucher has increased $267 since the program’s first year of implementation. If this pace continues then it can be projected that in FY 2021 the state cost for the voucher, without considering the potential passage of SB 386, will be $38.3 million.

Georgia Special Needs Scholarship Costs Have Grown Over Time
Year Cost Dollar Growth Percentage Growth Participating Students
2008  $5,417,425 899
2009  $9,294,728  $3,877,303 71.6% 1,596
2010  $12,641,932  $3,347,204 36.0% 2,068
2011  $16,219,717  $3,577,785 28.3% 2,529
2012  $18,706,792  $2,487,075 15.3% 2,933
2013  $18,606,403  $ (100,389) -0.5% 3,229
2014  $18,216,499  $ (389,904) -2.1% 3,075
2015  $20,661,388  $2,444,889 13.4% 3,643
2016  $23,495,631  $2,834,243 13.7% 4,154
2017  $26,052,811  $2,557,180 10.9% 4,553
2018  $29,025,673  $2,972,862 11.4% 4,664
2019  $33,205,756  $4,180,083 14.4% 4,873
2020*  $35,731,968
2021*  $38,258,180
Averages $2,526,212 19.3%

Source: GBPI analysis of Georgia Department of Education’s Georgia Special Needs Scholarship Program End of School Year Reports: FY 2008 – 2019.

The most recent data available showed 1.6 percent of Georgia’s public school enrollment had 504 plans without an IEP in FY 2016.[17] At that time, the percentage of students with 504 plans had grown on average by 31.9 percent every two years since 2010.[18]

Number and Percentage of Georgia Students with 504 Plans that Do Not Have an IEP
Year Number of Students with just 504 plans Percent Percent Growth
2010 12,566 0.8%
2012 15,119 0.9% 20.3%
2014 21,451 1.2% 41.9%
2016 28,640 1.6% 33.5%
Average 31.9%

Source: GBPI analysis of U.S. Department of Education Civil Rights Data, FY 2010 – 2016

This growth projects that 2.8 percent of Georgia students have a 504 plan without an IEP in FY 2020.[19] However, using the more conservative FY 2016 percentage of 1.6 percent, it is projected that 29,000 students are in this same category in FY 2020.

In FY 2019, 2.3 percent of students with an IEP participated in the GSNS. This analysis uses that same rate as an assumption of the lower bounds of what percentage of children with just a 504 plan would participate in the GSNS if SB 386 is passed. This assumed rate, 2.3 percent, is equal to 669 students that only have 504 plans.

SB 386 Would Significantly Increase Amount of Public Dollars Sent to Private Schools
If 2% of students with 504 plans participate If 10% of students with 504 plans participate If 25% of students with 504 plans participate If 50% of students with 504 plans participate
Students 669 2,864 7,160 14,320
SB 386 Additional Cost $2,384,466 $10,205,984 $25,514,959  $51,029,918
Total GSNS Cost FY 2021 – Projected  $40,642,646 $48,464,163  $63,773,139  $89,288,098

Source: Based on a GBPI analysis of U.S. Department of Education Civil Rights Data, FY 2016; Student enrollment data, FY 2019; Quality Basic Education Reports – Allotment sheet, FY 2020

However, it is possible that a greater percentage of these students would participate. Since 504 plans do not include assurances of additional academic services, the opportunity cost of leaving a public school setting could be much lower than students with an IEP.

Policy Considerations

The eligibility expansion of SB 386 has the potential to significantly increase enrollment to a program that contains gaps in protections for students with disabilities. Now that the program has been in place for 13 years, it is time to evaluate the program’s effects to help ensure students and parents have the information necessary to make sound decisions about participation. Georgia’s public schools continue to offer the strongest option for parents of children with disabilities, since civil rights protections are forfeited if a child attends a private school that does not receive federal funding. Additionally, the continued erosion of public school budgets will only result in less resources for all students served. Georgia legislators should reject SB 386 and continue working toward full and fair funding for the state’s public education.

Endnotes

[1] Georgia Department of Education (2019). Georgia Special Needs Scholarship Program End of School Year Report: 2018-2019 School Year. Retrieved from https://gosa.georgia.gov/research-evaluation-auditing/research-reports

[2] Georgia Department of Education (2018). Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973: Guidance for Georgia Local Education Agencies. Retrieved from https://www.gadoe.org/Curriculum-Instruction-and-Assessment/Student-Support-Teams/Documents/GaDOESection504Guidance.pdf

[3] Ibid.

[4] National Disability Rights Network (2019). Advocacy Groups File U.S. Supreme Court Brief Warning That School Vouchers Harm Students with Disabilities. Retrieved from https://www.ndrn.org/resource/advocacy-groups-file-u-s-supreme-court-brief-warning-that-school-vouchers-harm-students-with-disabilities/

[5] Georgia Department of Education (2018). Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973: Guidance for Georgia Local Education Agencies. Retrieved from https://www.gadoe.org/Curriculum-Instruction-and-Assessment/Student-Support-Teams/Documents/GaDOESection504Guidance.pdf

[6] National Disability Rights Network (2019). Advocacy Groups File U.S. Supreme Court Brief Warning That School Vouchers Harm Students with Disabilities. Retrieved from https://www.ndrn.org/resource/advocacy-groups-file-u-s-supreme-court-brief-warning-that-school-vouchers-harm-students-with-disabilities/

[7] National Disability Rights Network, et al. (2019). Brief For Amici Curiae National Disability Rights Network, The Arc of The United States, Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates, et al. Supporting Respondent. Retrieved from https://www.supremecourt.gov/DocketPDF/18/18-1195/122651/20191115171010872_18-1195bsacNationalDisabilityRightsNetworkEtAl.pdf

[8] S.B. 386 (LC 49 0125). Gen. Assemb. Reg. Sess. 2019-2020 (G.A. 2020)

[9] Georgia Department of Education. School System Financial Information. Retrieved from https://www.gadoe.org/Finance-and-Business-Operations/Financial-Review/Pages/School-System-Financial-Information.aspx

[10] Based on a GBPI analysis of Quality Basic Education Reports – Allotment sheet, FY 2020.

[11] Owens, S. (2020, February 12). What are School Vouchers? Georgia Budget and Policy Institute. https://gbpi.org/2020/what-are-school-vouchers/

[12] United States Government Accountability Office. (2017). Private School Choice: Federal Actions Needed to Ensure Parents are Notified About Changes in Rights for Students with Disabilities. Retrieved from https://www.gao.gov/assets/690/688444.pdf

[13] Based on a GBPI analysis of SB 10 Private School List and Georgia Department of Education (2019). Georgia Special Needs Scholarship Program End of School Year Report: 2018-2019 School Year. Retrieved from https://www.gadoe.org/External-Affairs-and-Policy/Policy/Pages/Special-Needs-Scholarship-Program.aspx and https://gosa.georgia.gov/research-evaluation-auditing/research-reports

[14] United States Government Accountability Office. (2017). Private School Choice: Federal Actions Needed to Ensure Parents are Notified About Changes in Rights for Students with Disabilities. Retrieved from https://www.gao.gov/assets/690/688444.pdf

[15] Georgia Department of Education (2018). Georgia Special Needs Scholarship Program: Private School Responsibilities. Retrieved from https://www.gadoe.org/External-Affairs-and-Policy/Policy/Documents/SB10%20Private%20School%20Responsibilities.pdf

[16] Based on a GBPI analysis of Georgia Special Needs Scholarship Program End of School Year Report: FY 2008 – 2019 School Year(s). Retrieved from https://gosa.georgia.gov/research-evaluation-auditing/research-reports

[17] U.S. Department of Education. (2018). Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC) for the 2015-16 School Year. Retrieved from https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/docs/crdc-2015-16.html

[18] Based on a GBPI analysis of U.S. Department of Education Civil Rights Data, FY 2006 – 2016. Retrieved from https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/docs/crdc-2015-16.html and https://ocrdata.ed.gov/StateNationalEstimations

[19] Ibid.

 

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