Dear Chairman Payne and Members of the Georgia Senate Committee on Education and Youth:
By way of introduction my name is Stephen Owens, and I’m a senior K-12 education policy analyst for the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute. It is always my desire to give testimony in-person, but as my elderly mother-in-law lives with us, I want to try to stay as safe as possible during the pandemic until she’s fully vaccinated. Please accept this letter as my testimony concerning Senate Bill 47.
I want to begin by thanking you for your collective consideration of Georgia’s students with disabilities.
The federal Rehabilitation Act that holds Section 504, which features heavily in Senate Bill 47, wasn’t passed until 1973. James Cherry, whose lawsuit was the impetus for enforcing Section 504, wrote about his experience: “In 1970 we had no right to education, to employment, to transportation, to housing, or to voting. There were no civil rights laws for us… Few people looked beyond our medical needs.”
People with disabilities fought for generations for their right to public spaces. The Rehabilitation Act was a watershed moment when the law of the land stated that if you receive federal money then you are forbidden from discrimination based on ability. The protections that are in this landmark piece of legislation are now guaranteed upon any child that receives a 504 plan—only if they remain in a school that receives federal funding, however. It is for this reason that the National Disability Rights Network and other disability community advocates filed a brief in 2019 asking the U.S. Supreme Court to uphold a ruling invalidating a voucher in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue.
If you want to support these students, then reinvest in the place they are most protected. Consider legislation that would support both urban and rural Georgia, where no private schools exist for students to get a scholarship for. Invest in higher pay for special education teachers or policies that bolster our school leaders so they can better evaluate and lead these teachers.
You could continue the great work in the amended budget and raise the allocation for school transportation, so that a district doesn’t have to fire teachers to provide transportation for a student in a wheelchair.
There are so many ways to support students with disabilities. I ask that you say yes to these amazing students by voting no on this bill. Thank you.
Stephen J. Owens, Ph.D.
Senior Policy Analyst, K-12 Education
Georgia Budget & Policy Institute
50 Hurt Plaza SE, Suite 720, Atlanta, GA 30303