Vouchers Help Ga. Kids with Special Needs

Published February 1, 2008

Despite a late start, Georgia’s publicly funded scholarship program for special-needs children is making quick progress, with almost a thousand students already benefiting from full school choice and many parents calling for expansion.

In addition, a series of late 2007 town hall meetings designed to inform parents about the scholarships and answer their concerns has been hailed as a success.

The scholarship bill passed the Georgia House 90-84 on April 20 and was signed into law by Gov. Sonny Perdue (R) on May 17. According to Georgia Department of Education spokesperson Dana Tofig, 117 private schools had applied to be part of the program and were cleared to receive scholarship students between the signing of the bill and the end of June.

“We’re really impressed by the success of the program,” said state Rep. David Casas (R-Lilburn), who sponsored the bill in the House. “Georgia has just embraced it quickly.”

Like Florida

More than 5,000 Georgia families applied, and about 900 special-education students currently are using scholarships to attend a private school. That’s not far off the mark set by Florida’s McKay Scholarship Program, on which the Georgia program is carefully modeled. In its first year (2000-01) the Florida program had 970 recipients.

To qualify for the scholarships, Georgia students must have an active individual education plan and have been enrolled in public school during the 2006-07 school year.

At an average of $6,000, scholarship amounts are determined by the severity of a student’s disability. The most generous scholarship is about $12,000, said David Pusey, policy analyst for the Georgia Family Council. There is no cap on the number of scholarships.

Quick Turnaround

Pusey credited Jeff Gagne, the Georgia Department of Education’s federal liaison, for the quick technical work needed to make scholarships widely available to students for the 2007-08 school year after the law’s passage in May.

“The turnaround on this thing was unbelievably fast,” Pusey said. “The DOE has done a superhuman job.”

Teaming up with Gagne to answer questions at four town hall meetings statewide, Casas observed the response as largely positive.

“We’re hearing from parents all around the state that they’re happy they finally have a choice,” Casas said. “This has just really ignited the flame of school reform and of school choice.”

Patience Needed

The biggest criticism brought forward by town hall participants is that the publicly funded scholarships are limited for use only by current public school students.

“It actually has created some anger among private school parents,” Pusey said, noting how narrowly the bill passed the legislature. “There’s not much we can do to really promote that. Right now, the political will isn’t there.”

Casas also said not restricting scholarship access to public school students would have made it more difficult to locate adequate funding sources in time to implement the program for the current school year. While acknowledging political realities, he said he hopes the program can be expanded.

“If we tried to do it in one big swoop, this law wouldn’t have passed at all,” said Casas. “We’re asking [private school parents] for patience.”

Greater Expectations

Private schools can apply to receive scholarship students for the following school year between January and June 2008. The Department of Education anticipates greater demand for scholarships and expanded space to accommodate them.

“We expect there to be more schools with slots available, and more parental interest,” Tofig said.

Pusey also expects greater school involvement in 2008. Some of the schools that have been hesitant to join fear the encroachment of state government. But Pusey thinks more private schools are seeing those fears as unfounded.

“They don’t want the state in their business, and the state doesn’t want to be in their business,” Pusey said.

Expanding Freedom

For his part, Casas believes expanding aid to special-education students is a logical and straightforward approach. “It’s a no-brainer,” Casas said. “This is the way to go to help a population that needs immediate help and is most highly at risk.”

Casas says corporate tax credits for private school scholarships may be coming soon to Georgia, to help expand education options for families regardless of special needs.

He also urges other states to seek the benefits of adopting special-needs scholarship programs similar to the one Georgia approved and implemented in 2007.

“It allows the state to measure the impact and popularity of school choice, it allows parents to look at choice in a different way that helps education, and it’s an answer to our educational woes,” Casas said.

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