Special needs students finally get help, options deserved
By Gerard Robinson
For the Journal-Constitution
Published on: 12/26/07
It’s funny how adults often characterize the laws of supply and demand as nothing more than a glass half-empty.
A recent AJC article concerning this first year of the Georgia Special Needs Scholarship, and the overwhelming demand for scholarships by parents to get their children into settings other than the public school system, illustrates that the program is not half-empty but half-full (“Vouchers popular, limited,” Page One, Dec. 17). And it will become entirely full as, like in Florida, more schools at a variety of tuition price points open in our state to provide opportunities for these children.
Think of where we were just a year ago. The glass was entirely empty. The 902 Georgia children now using the scholarships to attend small Christian schools, independent schools, specialized schools that help students with particular disabilities and other private schools were nearly without options this time last year. These children, particularly poor and minority students, were stuck in their neighborhood public school.
From what I’ve heard from parents, they were frustrated. Their children were falling behind their peers. Some were many, many grade levels behind —- and their self-esteem was suffering along with it.
In response to the demand, the Georgia Department of Education accomplished miracles just 90 days after Gov. Sonny Perdue signed the new school choice program into law, approving 117 schools to accept children with the scholarship. That gave parents an option they never had before: Stay at the local school or shop around. And like good consumers, some shopped around and found the options too expensive. Others decided to make up the difference and attend some expensive private schools, using the scholarship to help pay the way. And others were delighted in many cases to discover the scholarship amount for their special needs child would cover tuition at smaller private schools.
A good cross-section of children earned the scholarship this first year. Forty-five percent are minorities. One-third of the children had qualified for free-and-reduced lunch at their previous public school. As more parents learn about the program, these numbers will likely increase.
Although some parents were unable to pick the precise private school they wanted right now, this does not mean that the Georgia Special Needs Scholarship offers parents a false promise. After a few years of operation in Florida, the McKay Scholarship Program prompted the opening of dozens of private schools at all tuition levels and targeted a variety of disabilities. The forces of supply and demand will work here, too.
In regard to parental “disappointment” about our Special Needs Scholarship, perhaps a closer look at interest group politics will reveal one reason why the scholarship is not larger. School boards and teachers unions in Florida, Georgia and other states where there are similar scholarship programs for special needs students have vehemently fought against federal or local education dollars following these children. This scholarship only includes state funds. In other words, special interests do not mind losing the special education child to a private school if it doesn’t cost their school district anything. The fact that poor and working class parents wish the scholarship amounts were higher is a testament to the fact that all education dollars should follow the child.
There is great victory here for all involved. Parents of special needs children of all income levels, but most particularly low-income families, now have options —- something unheard of just a few months ago. While some may be able to utilize their scholarships to access the finest private schools, others may be happy to attend a small, Christian school that offers small classes and individualized attention. Other parents have told me that they are happy just to have any assistance and are willing to make sacrifices, work extra if they have to, so that their child can get the best education possible. The scholarship paved the way.
Special needs children are just that: special. The Georgia Special Needs Scholarship gives parents an option to put children who need it in another setting that may be appropriate for them. And that, to so many, has been a blessing.