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Georgia program helps pay bill for teaching children with disabilities
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Dana Tofig, spokesman for the Georgia Department of Education, explains how the special-needs scholarship program works.

If you have a child with a disability, the state of Georgia may give you financial assistance if you prefer to have him or her educated at a private school.

But in order to qualify for the special needs scholarship, parents need to sign up by Sept. 5.

"It gives parents more choices," said Ava White, who runs the Ava White Academy, a small school in Gainesville. "But many people don’t know that (the program) exists."

White’s school, which specializes in helping students with learning disabilities, is among 145 Georgia schools participating in the program.

The scholarships were made possible by a 2007 state law that allows parents to take the money a public school would have spent teaching their child and apply that money to private school tuition.

There’s no additional cost to the state, because it’s simply a transfer of funds. On average, the scholarship is worth about $6,000, but in some cases it’s much higher.

"The amount varies because students need different levels of services," said Dana Tofig, spokesman for the Georgia Department of Education. "A student with a severe disability is going to cost more than one who has a mild disability."

Tofig said in 2007, 186,406 Georgia students in grades K-12 had some type of disability. That’s about 12 percent of the state’s total student population.

In the 2007-08 school year, the first year the scholarship was available, 899 students took advantage of it, and the state doled out about $5.6 million.

It is not a voucher program. The parent chooses a school from the list, and the state writes a check to the school.

But Tofig said parents should understand what they’re getting into.

The only criterion for a school to participate in the program is to be generally accredited.

"The state does not require that schools have any expertise in teaching children with disabilities," said Tofig. "It’s up to the parent to do the research. That’s very important."

Some of the participating schools, such as White’s, are tailored specifically toward disabled children. But many small, private schools don’t have the resources that a public school system has.

Tofig said by signing up for the scholarship, parents waive their right to appeal if the private school fails to deliver the services it promised.

"They have no recourse," he said.

Last year, 73 students left the private school they transferred to, though Tofig doesn’t know how many of those chose to go back to public school.

But most parents say they have had a positive experience with the scholarship program.

"If I had known about it last year, I would have put my son in it then," said Maura Pittman, who lives in Lawrenceville.

Her son, now in the eighth grade, has a learning disability that makes reading difficult for him. He attended Gwinnett County schools and was receiving private tutoring from Ava White.

Then Pittman found out that not only did White have a school in Gainesville, but the state would provide money to help her child attend.

"That definitely made it more feasible to do this," Pittman said.

The Ava White Academy is almost a throwback to the one-room schoolhouse, with children of all ages being taught at once. But with two teachers and fewer than a dozen students, they get far more attention than they would in a typical public-school classroom.

"We can spend more time on basic skills and remediation, because we are not bound by state mandates to teach art, music, physical education and so on," said White.

She said some parents are concerned about their child receiving a well-rounded education, but the school day ends at 2 p.m., leaving time for sports or other extracurricular activities.

Also, students aren’t expected to spend their entire school career at the academy.

"The plan is for them to be here for a year, or no more than two, and return to a regular school," said White.

Pittman said her son wants to spend a year strengthening his reading skills, then experience the social aspects of attending a public high school.

Pittman said even with the scholarship, parents still have to make sacrifices to participate in the program.

"It’s hard because families have to provide their own transportation," she said.

They also have to pay for the portion of tuition not covered by the scholarship. The amount given out by the state is based solely on the student’s educational requirements, not on the family’s financial need or on how much tuition the private school charges.

A year at White’s school, for example, costs $10,500. If the student’s state scholarship is $6,000, that still leaves the family with considerable out-of-pocket expense.

Also, not every disabled student is eligible for the scholarship. To qualify, the child must have been enrolled in a Georgia public school for the entire previous year, and the parents must have been Georgia residents for at least a year.

The child also must already have an Individualized Education Program, written by the special education staff at his current public school.

The state requires that all disabled students have such a program, which spells out exactly what their educational needs are and how they will be met.

This document determines how much money is allocated for the student’s education.

The scholarship also is not available to home-schooled students, children in the juvenile justice system or children younger than kindergarten age.

Still, while the program isn’t perfect, Pittman said she’s glad the option was available to her family.

"Public schools do the best they can with special education, but they don’t always meet everyone’s needs," she said.

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