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Payment schedule slow in Ga. special needs voucher plan
Bill to help parents pay for private schools not living up to expectations
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Georgia private schools are feeling a bit misunderstood.

In 2007, the General Assembly passed a law establishing the Special Needs Scholarship, a voucher system that gives disabled students a way to attend a private school of their choice. Parents see notable academic improvement, and students actually like going to school again.

But there are a few kinks.

Several private schools have reported the payment schedule isn’t timely, and a few are taking out loans to pay personnel until the reimbursement check arrives.

Parents have complained the enrollment period between May and August is too short and growing narrower each year. Advocates have noted the limited use of the program and the lack of publicity about the scholarship.

Legislators attempted to address the problems this spring, but the bill only made it to a second reading in the Senate. Parts of the legislation were tacked onto a House bill that was sure to pass, but Gov. Sonny Perdue vetoed it, citing budget concerns.

Supporters are looking for another place to go.

“Georgia developed their program three years ago and modeled it after the Florida model but didn’t take all of the pieces,” said Steve Hicks, vice president of operations for Center Academy, which features a dozen private schools across Florida and an academy for grades six to 12 in Smyrna.

“As a result, the missing pieces make it difficult for the program to operate successfully,” Hicks said. “One is the payment schedule, and we’ve been lobbying to get payments sent out on a quarterly basis like they do in Florida, which has worked successfully for 10 years.”

Hicks mentioned Florida’s McKay Scholarships for Students with Disabilities Program, which allowed more than 20,500 special needs Florida students to attend a private school during the 2008-09 school year. The Georgia program enrolled 2,068 students at the start of the 2009-10 school year.

“Florida also has a year-round enrollment period, so students can go to private schools at any time,” he said. “In Georgia, the program isn’t designed to accommodate the students. They’re fulfilling the letter of the law but not the spirit of the law.”

Parents are also left in the dark about the program, he said.

“I had a parent call today who didn’t even know about the scholarship, and there’s no attempt by the Department of Education to promote it,” Hicks said Thursday. “Students in Georgia who have the greatest needs are being underserved, and I just don’t get it. I don’t think it’s a deliberate attempt by the government to undermine the program, but I don’t think they understand how this scholarship really affects the private sector.”

Taking small steps

As supporters of the bill look to the next step, the schools keep moving along.

“We’ve seen good success with the boys who use the scholarship as they develop self-confidence and join the drum corps or football team. They’re just normal kids,” said Andrew Jobson, assistant dean at Riverside Military Academy. “With a lot of their accommodations, the kids couldn’t otherwise afford to be here.”

Every May, Ava White of Ava White Academy holds a “celebration to success” to show parents how much their students have progressed.

“They write letters every week, and the letters get longer and more detailed. The kids hated school and used to cry when they had to go,” she said. “They blossom like butterflies, and a huge part of the population has no clue this exists.”

Many parents hear about it through word of mouth, said Kelli Kindberg, whose 9-year-old son attends White’s academy.

“A friend of mine heard about it, so I went online and researched it,” she said. “Otherwise we probably wouldn’t be able to send him to a school where he needs to go. These schools are quite expensive.”

The public school he attended in Forsyth County wanted to hold him back a grade, though he has dyslexia.

“That wouldn’t help. He needs to be taught in a different way, and there are a lot of children out there that need more than what the public school can offer,” she said. “He’s actually picking up books and reading them with self-confidence. He didn’t like going to school, and now he’s come out of his shell.”

Legislators heard the feedback from parents and drafted Senate Bill 361, which renames the Special Needs Scholarship as the Early HOPE Scholarship, though it doesn’t affect the HOPE Scholarship program for higher education.

The bill expanded scholarship eligibility to children with a parent in the military, students who are in foster care, and Section 504 students who have disabilities that limit life activity but not necessarily learning, such as students in a wheelchair or with a chronic illness.

Sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Chip Rogers, R-Woodstock, the bill also defined a quarterly payment plan and publicity requirements, such as sending letters home about the scholarship.

“Schools start enrollment in February, and these special needs parents have to wait until May to know if they even qualify for the scholarship,” Hicks said. “By then, some schools have already filled up and there’s nowhere for them to go. The purpose of the bill was to address all this.”

Bill Scafidi and David Pusey of the Center for An Educated Georgia supported the bill after they conducted a survey of 55 Georgia families in 2009 about the scholarship program. Pusey talked to private school officials, who revealed they were receiving payment late and a few even taking out loans to cover costs.

The two schools in Hall County that use the scholarship program — Ava White Academy and Riverside Military Academy — aren’t having severe problems just yet.

“I’ve heard other schools mention that, but we’re pretty small and that’s not the only thing we do,” Ava White said. “When we have conference calls, they’ll talk about setting a date for payment and having to push it back.”

White said there’s nothing she can do, for now.

“It’s such a political hot potato,” she said.

The state Department of Education had little to say about the payments.

“I will say the law is clear that these schools should be financially solvent and should not be solely dependent on the state money to operate,” said Matt Cardoza, communications director for the department. “It’s really a combination of things. Sometimes there’s a delay on the school end to get us the appropriate information to process payment, and then we have one staff person to do all of it.”

The next idea

When the bill stopped at its second reading in the Senate, it was back to the drawing board for legislators.

Rep. David Casas, R-Lilburn, agreed to tack on part of SB 361 onto his House Bill 907, which gave more freedom to organization of middle schools. Lobbyists met with members of the governor’s staff, who “felt comfortable” with both the original bill and addition.

“Their only concern was the language allowed for four enrollment dates, and we removed one at their request,” said Jamie Self, director of government affairs for the Georgia Family Council. “We feel like we got the green light, so it came as a big surprise when the governor vetoed it.”

In his veto statement, Perdue said he supported the original bill but didn’t agree with the special-needs scholarship addition in tough economic times.

The bill “imposes onerous requirements on the Department of Education regarding the Special Needs Voucher, most significant of which was the unqualified requirement to pay such vouchers in four equal quarterly payments,” Perdue said.

Several legislators are determined not to give up on SB 361.

Cardoza told The Times on Thursday that the state Department of Education will post a payment calendar before the end of July, and that’s just the beginning.

“I think we’re going to attempt an override of the veto,” Casas said. “Schools are doing a great job, obviously parents want their kids there, and we need to make the process easier. It’s critical to children receiving the services.”

Casas hopes to make changes by January.

“It’s inside baseball,” he said. “There are a lot of technicalities, and schools don’t face challenges until they’re in the process. If these problems continue, I can see schools not wanting to participate, and that’s unfair to kids.”

The changes should go beyond legislation, Hicks noted.

“It’s so very important that someone at the state level sits down with the private sector,” he said. “In Florida, we have a voice. I meet with the Department of Education on a regular basis, and they tell us what they’re thinking and asking how it impacts us.”
Georgia could take more pointers from the Florida program, he said.

“There’s just a lack of understanding as to what makes this program successful,” he said. “We’re not trying to tell them how to do their jobs, but we do need to look at how we interface with them.”