What goal is more important than ensuring our most vulnerable students have the best shot at success? That’s what Georgia’s Special Needs Scholarship Program is all about. Now in its 11th year, the scholarship enables children who have special needs to transfer to another school to better meet their unique educational needs.
Over 4,500 students benefited from the program during the 2016-2017 school year, with scholarships averaging $5,722 per student.
But despite the success of the program, there is a lot more to be done. A House study committee convened in mid-June to consider updates to the program, specifically revisions contained in House Bill 801. HB 801 would make two significant updates to the Special Needs Scholarship Program—first, by giving parents more flexibility in how to best use scholarship funds on behalf of their child, and second by opening up scholarship funds to home-educated students.
In the first case, the bill would allow parents to use scholarship dollars for ongoing therapies, tutoring, or specialized equipment. This, in turn, would empower children with special needs to excel in the classroom and beyond.
Sometimes, students with special needs are lagging behind in their traditional public school environments. So, when they transition to a private school through the scholarship, they have to play catch up to get fully up-to-speed. Allowing parents to use scholarship funds for approved non-tuition expenses would go a long way toward helping these students stay on track at their new schools.
This type of change makes sense: Public schools are already required to provide in-house speech, occupational, and physical therapy for children with special needs. Granting scholarship recipients the same flexibility is wise.
At the study committee hearing on HB 801, parents made emotional appeals, asking lawmakers to open scholarship funds to homeschool families as well:
A former Gwinnett teacher now homeschooling her adopted children said they would benefit if the scholarship was opened to homeschoolers for tutoring and therapies, including speech, physical, occupational and equine. Her seven children face multiple struggles related to the chaos of their early lives and, in some cases, fetal alcohol syndrome and visual impairments, that render a traditional classroom unworkable, she explained.
An Atlanta mother said she pulled her bright daughter with autism out of a public middle school because the girl grew anxious and overwhelmed in such a big setting. Her daughter’s therapist recommended homeschooling to alleviate the anxiety. The mother’s goal is to homeschool now and then enroll her daughter in a small, flexible high school. She asked lawmakers to drop the requirement that students only qualify for the voucher after a full year in public school.
The Special Needs Scholarship Program is working for Georgia families who need help the most. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improvement. By making these two changes, lawmakers would open up the scholarship program to hundreds of additional families in need of real educational options.