By Katie Fallon
When students across Sandy Springs, Buckhead and the state started the new school year during the past month, those with special needs had more options than normal thanks to a new law passed on the last day of the 2007 state legislative session.
Essentially, the Georgia Special Needs Scholarship, or SB10, allows parents to use the money their public school system would have used educating their child and apply those funds towards a private or public school of their choice. The bill became law when Gov. Sonny Perdue signed it on May 18 and the program was first available for the 2007-2008 school year.
Fulton Schools spokeswoman Susan Hale said the average per-pupil spending in the county’s public schools is $9,020. The amount for educating a special needs child, whose disabilities can range from attention deficit disorder to blindness, depends on the services needed to address the disability. There is no set average in per-pupil spending for special needs students.
Because the bill gives parents an option other than the public school dictated to them by zoning maps, it could have made for a decrease in Fulton’s special needs students. Hale said, however, that has not happened.
“Not a noticeable difference,” she said. “If anything, we have increased the number of teachers and teacher assistants this year due to need.”
For parents with special needs children, one step to utilizing the benefits to SB10 is already in place. One requirement is that the students have an Individual Educational Plan (IEP).
That, Hale said, is already in place for Fulton’s special needs students.
“Students with disabilities are evaluated for the services they need and an IEP is developed,” she said. “All [Fulton public] schools offer special education services to students with an IEP.”
State Sen. Judson Hill (R-32), whose district includes Sandy Springs and who was a sponsor of SB10, said the scholarship is about giving parents choices.
“The purpose of the scholarship is to tailor a student’s education to that student’s specific needs and enable the student’s family to make genuine and independent private choices to direct their resources to appropriate schools,” Hill said. “If the parent believes their child’s needs can be better met in another school, public or private, then the parent now has a mechanism for transferring their child into such a facility. Many parents in Sandy Springs and Georgia will use this option for that reason and others will keep their students in their current educational facility because their needs are being met.”
Hill said the bill now gives parents greater public school choices wherein they may move their child into a public or private facility, allow the scholarship is not necessary if a special needs student transfers from one public school to another.
Applying for the scholarship does include several requirements. First, the student must have completed the pervious school year in a public school prior to the year in which parents want to utilize the scholarship. If parents want to apply the scholarship to their child’s attendance at a private school, the child must get accepted to a school that has been approved to participate in the scholarship program. For the current school year, 10 private schools in Buckhead or Sandy Springs are participating the program.
Students also have to be a Georgia resident, have one or more specified disabilities and have an IEP in place.
The choices for parents also include moving their child to a private or public school, provided the public school has room in its special needs program. Students can participate in the scholarship program until they return to their public school, graduate from high school or until the year they turn 21 years of age.
“The receiving school and system will receive state funds in the same manner they would for another student transferring in to their school system,” Hill said. “However, each local school system will make the decision regarding a parental request to transfer their student based on class size and school capacity.”
Requirements for participating schools are fewer, provided they meet the application criteria.
The money for the scholarships comes from state tax dollars and is budgeted for the Georgia Department of Education (DOE) by the legislature.
Hill said if students are approved for the scholarship, parents will receive four quarterly payments. After the DOE receives verification from the private schools that a scholarship student is enrolled and attending, a scholarship check will be made payable to the student’s parent or guardian and mailed to the school.
After the private school notifies the department that the check has been received, the parents then have 20 days to endorse the check to the school.
The state senator said the average cost of the scholarship will be close to $9,000 annually, but that each student’s amount will be contingent upon the severity of the child’s disability.
Parents who would like to learn more about qualifications for their child’s eligibility to participate in the Georgia Special Needs Scholarship can visit the program’s official web site at http://www.doe.k12.ga.us/sb10.aspx.