by Georgia Center for Opportunity | Jul 3, 2018
What goal is more important than ensuring our most vulnerable students have the best shot at success? That’s what Georgia’s Special Needs Scholarship Program is all about. Now in its 11th year, the scholarship enables children who have special needs to transfer to another school to better meet their unique educational needs.
Over 4,500 students benefited from the program during the 2016-2017 school year, with scholarships averaging $5,722 per student.
But despite the success of the program, there is a lot more to be done. A House study committee convened in mid-June to consider updates to the program, specifically revisions contained in House Bill 801. HB 801 would make two significant updates to the Special Needs Scholarship Program—first, by giving parents more flexibility in how to best use scholarship funds on behalf of their child, and second by opening up scholarship funds to home-educated students.
In the first case, the bill would allow parents to use scholarship dollars for ongoing therapies, tutoring, or specialized equipment. This, in turn, would empower children with special needs to excel in the classroom and beyond.
Sometimes, students with special needs are lagging behind in their traditional public school environments. So, when they transition to a private school through the scholarship, they have to play catch up to get fully up-to-speed. Allowing parents to use scholarship funds for approved non-tuition expenses would go a long way toward helping these students stay on track at their new schools.
This type of change makes sense: Public schools are already required to provide in-house speech, occupational, and physical therapy for children with special needs. Granting scholarship recipients the same flexibility is wise.
At the study committee hearing on HB 801, parents made emotional appeals, asking lawmakers to open scholarship funds to homeschool families as well:
A former Gwinnett teacher now homeschooling her adopted children said they would benefit if the scholarship was opened to homeschoolers for tutoring and therapies, including speech, physical, occupational and equine. Her seven children face multiple struggles related to the chaos of their early lives and, in some cases, fetal alcohol syndrome and visual impairments, that render a traditional classroom unworkable, she explained.
An Atlanta mother said she pulled her bright daughter with autism out of a public middle school because the girl grew anxious and overwhelmed in such a big setting. Her daughter’s therapist recommended homeschooling to alleviate the anxiety. The mother’s goal is to homeschool now and then enroll her daughter in a small, flexible high school. She asked lawmakers to drop the requirement that students only qualify for the voucher after a full year in public school.
The Special Needs Scholarship Program is working for Georgia families who need help the most. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improvement. By making these two changes, lawmakers would open up the scholarship program to hundreds of additional families in need of real educational options.
by Georgia Center for Opportunity | Jun 3, 2015
Last Friday I had the opportunity to address a subcommittee of the Governor’s Education Reform Commission. This particular subcommittee is tasked with making recommendations on how best to expand educational options in Georgia, or, more plainly, addressing the question,
“What sort of choices should parents have in how their children are educated?”
I was able to tell the subcommittee how I (along with others) lobbied back in 2007 for the passage of the Georgia Special Needs Scholarship Program, our state’s first state-funded private school choice program. We came back in 2008 and lobbied for the creation of the Tax Credit Scholarship Program, which allows individual and corporate donors to receive a tax credit for donations made to non-profits who give scholarships to kids leaving public schools for private options.
Because of these two programs, more than 16,000 students in Georgia now attend the private school their parents chose for them. Many of these children and their families share stories of lives changed because of the opportunities these scholarships provided. Kids that were struggling in the public school they were zoned for are now thriving in an environment chosen by their parents that better meets their individual needs.
But while 16,000 students have found hope in the opportunity afforded by choice, thousands more languish behind because they are either not eligible for a state-funded scholarship or because the tax credit program is capped, limiting the number of students who can participate.
The 2007/2008 legislative session was an exciting time. Georgia suddenly popped onto the national education choice scene in a big way. We may not have been a leader back then, but at least we were finally on the team.
But as I shared with the subcommittee, we haven’t done much since. As a state we had our moment on the national stage, but it was a bit of a flash and then a fizzle.*
We’ve watched year after year as other states create new educational choice programs or expand existing ones. These states are whizzing right past us to the top of the pack, leaving us in an all-too-familiar place when it comes to education: hanging near the back.
Scott Jensen, a colleague of mine in the school choice arena who serves as the Senior Policy Advisor for the American Federation for Children, explained to the committee, “You (Georgia) have the slowest growth rate of any program in the country. Because there is none.”
I’ve been through seven legislative sessions since the creating of our programs, advocating each time for “more” – more choices for families to meet the specific needs of their kids because those kids’ futures depend on them getting a good education.
It’s not as though offering educational options to families is some sort of competition between GA and other states. But it is true that our kids are competing, and not just with other states – they are competing in a global marketplace.
I bet if we allow ourselves a moment of honesty, most of us could agree on a couple of things:
1. Our kids deserve a 21st century education that actually prepares them for college, a career, and life.
2. Every child is different and has unique learning needs.
The great news is, in the 21st century, there are so many tools that previous generations of students, teachers, and parents just didn’t have at their disposal: digital classes and programs, special schools to address specific learning challenges, schools with a focus on the arts, schools with a focus on science and technology, innovative home study programs, etc.
This is actually why I’m not sure the phrase “school choice” really covers the gamut of options anymore. Often, the choices that make the most sense for a family aren’t really schools in the traditional sense. Rather, they are programs, services, therapies or other options that go well beyond the school walls.
With such a diversity of options on the market, what keeps families stuck in the same old school, or the same old rut? It’s usually one of two things:
1. State policy that prevents them from choosing a different educational path.
2. A lack of resources to afford the existing options or move to a different area of town with better educational offerings.
So, what can we do about these challenges? At Georgia Center for Opportunity, we are all about breaking down barriers to opportunity. Together, we can work to:
1. Change state policy to allow families more flexibility with regard to educational options, prioritizing the specific needs of a child over arbitrary school district boundaries.
2. Remove some of the financial obstacles by allowing families to use the money the state designated to educate their child for another school or program of their choice that better meets their child’s needs.
I am weary but hopeful that 2016 will be the end of the lack of legislative action to address the need for more educational options. I hope that the Governor’s Education Reform Commission makes thoughtful but bold recommendations to expand educational choice in Georgia. I hope the Governor and the legislature take those ideas and turn them into reality for our families. I hope, because for far too many kids, a way out, a way forward, or a new way of doing things is their only hope to receive the best education they can get.
Georgia needs to get back in the game, step up to the plate, and make sure we are doing all we can to set our students up for a WIN in this game of life.
*(Actually, we’ve done a lot of good in providing additional public school choices through charter schools, and we’ve had some exciting public school reforms, but here I am focused on what we do for families who need an option outside of the public system in which they are zoned).