Georgia Floats Special-Needs Scholarship Bill

Published April 1, 2007

Disabled children in Georgia may soon have access to a similar range of educational choices as their Florida neighbors, if a state legislative proposal wins final support.

Senate Bill 10, the Georgia Special Needs Scholarship Act, would allot an average of $9,000 a year to send a child with a physical handicap or learning disability to a public or private school of the parents’ choice.

On January 31, the measure passed the state Senate on a vote of 31 to 23. At press time it was under consideration in the House of Representatives, where support was considered to be more tenuous.

One of the state’s major policy groups believes the proposal is a positive step toward improving education for students facing special challenges.

“Empowering parents is the best way to ensure the best kind of services will be received,” said Holly Robinson, senior vice president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation.

Finding Inspiration

Robinson believes the proposal would level the playing field among parents of disabled students. Wealthy families who believe their children are being ill-served are able to hire lawyers to press their claims or can afford to send their children to private schools, she noted. S.B. 10 “ensures students get the services they need, that parents will be served regardless of income.”

State Sen. Eric Johnson (R-Savannah), the bill’s primary sponsor, was inspired by Florida’s McKay Scholarship Program for special-needs students. A 2003 Manhattan Institute report by Jay P. Greene and Greg Forster found 93 percent of McKay parents were satisfied with their disabled children’s services. In addition, significantly smaller numbers reported behavioral problems and physical victimization than their counterparts who remained in programs at their assigned public schools.

Florida Department of Education data reveal about 5 percent of eligible special-needs students participated in 2005-06, the program’s sixth year.

Proponents of the Georgia measure believe any exodus from their state’s public school programs is also likely to be small. Though most families may be satisfied with their public special-education services, their satisfaction should not prevent others from having choices, they say.

“I’m most interested in how you’re going to serve the student,” Robinson said. “If the public school is doing an outstanding job, the parents are not going to take their student out of that school.”

Gathering Forces

Many state education establishment groups have aligned against the proposal.

“We don’t believe Georgia should support a dual program, one in private schools with public money and another one in public schools,” said Don Rooks, director of legislative services for the Georgia School Boards Association (GSBA).

Yet proponents note the scholarship idea has precedent. Georgia’s HOPE Scholarships provide state lottery funds to college students to attend the public or private school of their choice.

“We are already spending public money on private schools,” said Johnson.

Rooks disagreed, saying the comparison is invalid because of the difference in funding sources.

“Lottery money is not tax money,” Rooks said. “It’s public money, but it’s money that people pay voluntarily to generate those funds.”

Debating Accountability

Rooks expressed concern that the tax-funded Special Needs Scholarships lack sufficient public safeguards. “Private schools aren’t required to be accountable for the programs or for the money they get from the state,” he said.

However, supporters note S.B. 10 requires eligible private schools to comply with health and safety codes and federal non-discrimination laws as well as to show “fiscal soundness” through a report to the State Department of Education when students enroll to receive scholarships. In addition, the schools must serve students well in order to attract and retain them–unlike public schools, to which students are assigned by the government.

Amendments to the bill made in the Senate Education Committee require recipient schools to disclose to parents student assessment results and teacher qualifications.

“Achievement test results are required for every child so that parents know there is student learning, and that schools are held accountable for student success,” said Robinson.

No direct consequences are attached to the disclosure requirements.

“We’re leaving it to the parents to make a choice,” Johnson said.

Changing the Debate

The Special Needs Scholarships would come only from money raised by the state. “Local districts will be able to keep their funds,” Robinson said.

Nevertheless, GSBA forecasts a negative fiscal impact for schools that lose pupils.

“There is the possibility that either local funds would have to be used, or that the program itself might receive less funding, because the state money would follow students to the other school,” said Rooks.

Despite the GSBA’s protests, S.B. 10’s sponsor believes the bill shifts the focus of the discussion.

“By passing [the bill] through the Senate, we’re changing the debate–not whether it’s in the best interest of the school system, but what’s in the best interest of the students,” Johnson said.

Providing Choices

Some advocacy groups and parents testified against the legislation in January, claiming they don’t want to see their disabled children isolated from the “mainstream” student population.

Johnson is frustrated by that argument, saying it misses the point.

“Of course, S.B. 10 wouldn’t prevent anyone from choosing to put their child in a mainstream environment,” Johnson said, adding that parents contacting his office have been “overwhelmingly supportive” of the proposal.

“At the very bottom line, this comes down to who is going to make the decision for special-needs children–government or parents,” Johnson said. “We certainly should be able to provide an educational choice.”

Ben DeGrow ([email protected]) is a policy analyst for the Independence Institute in Golden, Colorado.

For more information …

The full text of S.B. 10, the Georgia Special Needs Scholarship Act, is available online at