Georgia Special-Needs Scholarships in High Demand

Published October 1, 2007

More than 5,000 Georgia families have applied for special-needs scholarships since Gov. Sonny Perdue (R) signed the new program into law on May 18. As of August 9, the Georgia State Board of Education had approved 118 private schools to accept the scholarships in the 2007-08 school year.

Students had to be enrolled in a participating private school by September 10, and those schools had to report the scholarship-student enrollment to the Georgia Department of Education by September 14.

The Georgia Special Needs Scholarship Program allows parents of disabled children to use the state dollars that would have been spent on their children’s education in public schools to send them to the public or private school of their choice. At press time, no public schools had registered with the state to participate in the program. The estimated average voucher will be about $9,000.

Using Options

With the help of the Georgia Special Needs Scholarship, Gilbert and Nadine James’ son David, 10, entered sixth grade at St. Peter Claver in the Atlanta suburb of Decatur. David, who has a speech impediment and receives speech therapy twice a week, left DeKalb County public schools, where he would have attended Salem Middle School.

“The middle school David was slated for has been ranked as failing during the past four years,” Nadine James said. “I didn’t think he would receive the level of school work he needed at Salem. And with the scholarship, we were willing to pay the difference.

“He has been there about two weeks, but he has really adjusted, and they are giving him some extra help,” Nadine said. “There are only 15 people in his class. He had 25 children in his other classes.”

Parents Making Sacrifices

Though tuition at St. Peter Claver is a little more than $7,000 a year, and the James family qualified for a $4,500 scholarship, Nadine said it “opens up a window for us to do this.”

“My child is worth it,” Nadine said. “If I have to go and get another part-time job, I would do it. I am just so encouraged. He is so much more enthused because he is excited about his teachers.”

Breaking Records

Arizona, Florida, Ohio, and Utah have similar special-needs scholarship programs, and according to the Alliance for School Choice, a national organization based in Washington, DC, participation rates are at record numbers.

The Georgia Special-Needs Scholarship was modeled after the nation’s first such program, Florida’s John M. McKay Scholarship for Students with Disabilities. More than 18,273 students currently use McKay scholarships, representing a net increase of more than 1,700 percent since the scholarships became available statewide in 2000. More than 800 private schools accept McKay students in Florida.

The program saw a 15 percent increase in student participation from 2005 to 2006, according to the Florida Department of Education’s McKay Scholarship Program quarterly report.

Participation in Utah’s Carson Smith Special Needs Scholarship Program has increased by 402 percent since Gov. Jon Huntsman (R) signed the program into law in 2005. More than 40 private schools are now participating in the program, according to the Utah Department of Education.

Similarly, Ohio’s Autism Scholarship Program’s student participation has increased by 81 percent since its inception in 2004.

Lori Drummer ([email protected]) is director of state projects at the Alliance for School Choice in Washington, DC.