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Senate to consider voucher plan for disabled students

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POSTED: February 2, 2007 5:04 a.m.
ATLANTA — Objections to private school vouchers will bump up against an effort to increase choices for students with learning disabilities when the state Senate considers a bill sponsored by its top member.
The plan, by Senate president pro-tem Eric Johnson, would require the state to pay if the parents of special-education students choose to send their children to a private school. It is scheduled to be considered by the full Senate on Wednesday.
The plan would be limited to students who have attended public schools for at least one year.
Eligible students would range from the blind and deaf and students with traumatic brain injuries to those with emotional and behavioral disorders.
“What we’re accomplishing is giving the parents of special-needs children an option if they’re not happy with the public school system,” Johnson, a Republican, said.
But the plan is facing stout opposition from public-school educators, who argue that vouchers weaken the public school system.
“We have long been opposed to publicly funded vouchers for private schools,” said Tim Callahan, spokesman for the 69,000-member Professional Association of Georgia Educators. “No matter how you cloak this, that’s what it is.”
Johnson has avoided calling the plan a voucher, dubbing it the Georgia Special Needs Scholarship Act. He acknowledges that he supports a similar plan for all students.
“I haven’t shied away from my support for a broader voucher program,” he said. “But I don’t think the votes are there for more.”
Critics, however, say the plan appears to be an attempt to start just such an effort in the state. If children with disabilities are given state money to attend private schools, voucher supporters could then argue it’s unfair not to give all students the same choice, they say.
“We’re going to have to take a long, serious look at that one — I’ve got a lot of questions about that bill,” said Sen. Tim Golden of Valdosta, chairman of the chamber’s Democratic caucus. “I hope (Johnson’s) motives are pure, but the cynicism in me says it’s political.”
Under the plan, the maximum amount parents would receive would be equal to the cost of educating the same child in public school.
Private schools participating in the program would be required to abide by some of the same rules as public schools, but the bill would not expand state oversight of the private schools.
Critics note that private schools are not bound by the same laws governing the treatment and education of disabled students. They say unscrupulous people could start up schools if the bill passes.
“What you might find is that schools would be set up just to receive these children or, more aptly, to receive their vouchers,” Callahan said. “This seems to be applying the old marketplace solution, but the market can be a pretty rough place with a lot of trial and error.”
 

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