Last week, I proposed the Georgia Special Needs Scholarship Program which is modeled after Florida’s successful McKay Scholarship Program for Students with Disabilities. This will combine parent-directed choices with student-directed funding. In short, my bill (SB 10) will provide a school voucher for any special education student in Georgia’s public schools. If the school their child attends fails to meet their expectations, parents can enroll their child in another school.
In just 6 years, Florida’s program has gone from 970 children to 17,300 students with disabilities taking advantage of this creative alternative. And, according to the Manhattan Institute, 93% of the parents of these children are ‘satisfied’ or ‘very satisfied’ compared to 33% who have the same level of satisfaction with their public schools. There are other benefits, too. Class sizes dropped dramatically – from an average of 25 students per class to 13. There were significant decreases in behavioral problems and the children were far less victimized by other students due to their disabilities. In short, participants in the McKay Scholarship program are being significantly better served at no additional cost to the taxpayers and little or no extra cost to their families.
Under federal law, every special needs child has an Individualized Educational Plan (IEP). The services required by the public school are determined by the IEP. The scholarships are based on the cost of delivering those services in the public school system. In Florida, this ranges from $4,800 to $20,700. The average scholarship is $7,000.
Disabled children with wealthy parents can attend private school now. Parents who can afford an attorney often challenge the public school’s ability to meet the IEP. If they win, the child is moved to a private school and funded by the state. So, only disabled children with poor or middle class parents who cannot afford an attorney have no option.
SB 10 does not mandate that local school systems do anything. It does not require private schools to accept these children. It does not attempt to blame teachers, administrators, or parents. It simply says that parents of special needs children can choose the school that their children will attend. If they believe their needs are being fulfilled in public school, they are free to stay. But, if they feel that their child’s needs are not being met, Georgia’s Special Needs Scholarships will give them the freedom to choose another school. It is rare that any education reform program, particularly one aimed at a disabled population, shows results so dramatic. I believe that Georgia should provide the same opportunity for our ‘special’ children that we do for pre-schoolers and HOPE scholars. Let’s give our special needs children increased opportunities by giving them choice.