Now in its second year, Georgia’s voucher program for special-needs students has continued to grow, with enrollment increasing 44 percent this year. Passed in 2007 by a one-vote margin, the program was operational three months later.
Dave Pusey, an education policy specialist for the Center for an Educated Georgia, explained that in the program’s first year 115 schools participated, with 899 students; in 2008, program participation jumped 77 percent because more people were aware of it.
Eligible students receive a voucher that allows them to attend a school with a program tailored to their particular condition. The vouchers range between $2,600 and $13,500 yearly, based on what the state has allocated for the student’s range of required services.
“Parents of children with disabilities are highly dissatisfied with Georgia schools, so when they get another option they beeline for the door,” said consultant Susan Meyers. “Now that they have the choice, they are running with it.”
Growth Is No Surprise
Pusey said the continued growth is to be expected.
“Special-needs kids need individualized attention,” Pusey explained. “In larger classes their grades may slip, they may be picked on, or face other challenges. The voucher program allows them to find a program that meets their unique needs.”
As word of the program continues to spread, more parents are finding they have more options for their child’s education.
“Local schools have to inform parents of students [with Individual Education Plans] about the voucher program,” Pusey said. “Plus, there’s a great deal of word of mouth.”
Kelly McCutchen, executive vice president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, agrees the increased publicity is helping expand the program. “I think more parents are taking advantage of the program because of a better communication effort by the Department of Education, the media, and other groups,” he said.
Because Georgia’s special-needs voucher program is not means-tested, children can qualify regardless of their parents’ income. Plus, there is no waiting list for the vouchers—if a student qualifies, he or she gets one automatically.
“The special-needs voucher is seen as a great success, and satisfaction among parents is high,” Pusey said. About 44 percent of current participants are minorities, and one-third have low family incomes that qualify them for reduced-price or free lunches. To cover the gap between their voucher and school tuition, many students receive in-house scholarships.
So far the program’s future appears bright. There is no sunset clause, and “this program may pave the road for a universal voucher program in the state,” Pusey said. “The bottom line? It’s about the children.”
Sarah McIntosh ([email protected]) teaches constitutional law and American politics at Wichita State University in Kansas.