The first deadline is quickly approaching for special education students and their families seeking financial aid to move from a public school to a private one.
The special-needs scholarship program has been in place for Georgia students since 2007, enabling those who meet certain criteria to move more easily between schools, whether they’re public or private.
“Parents have public school choice options, which means they can request a school other than the one that their child is zoned to attend either within their district or out of their district,” said Carmen Hernandez-Freemire, program manager for the special-needs scholarship with the state Department of Education.
“The caveat with that is the authority to grant or deny those requests lies with the school district itself,” she continued. “So if you live in Fulton County and you want your child to go to a different Fulton County school, you have to make that request of Fulton County, not the Department of Education.”
If a request is made for a different school within the same school district, the district must determine if there is capacity there, and if it can meet the requirements of the child as outlined in an Individualized Education Program.
“Now, a parent can also request a public school that’s not within their school district,” Hernandez-Freemire said. “Under those circumstances, a school district can deny a parent’s request for any reason.”
A lot of school districts have policies where they do not accept any out-of-district students, she said.
Gainesville Superintendent Merrianne Dyer said the city school system has never had an out-of-district request for the special-needs program, so a specific policy is not in place.
“It would be a case-by-case basis,” she said on the acceptance of applications.
Currently in the Hall school system, only the international baccalaureate and North Hall science, technology, engineering and mathematics programs accept out-of-district applicants, according to Superintendent Will Schofield.
There is also the option for a special-needs student to transfer to an eligible private school. Private schools must apply and be accredited to be considered eligible by the state. This school year, a parent can file to transfer a student from a public to private school this Monday, Dec. 16 and March 4.
The three Hall County private schools eligible for the program are Ava White Academy and Riverside Military Academy in Gainesville and Maranatha Christian Academy in Oakwood.
Ava White of Ava White Academy said around 70 to 80 percent of her 29 students are scholarship recipients. She said the percentage is so high because it’s an easy process to determine eligibility.
“You just go online, put the student’s name and birth date and school in, and within about 10 seconds you find out how much the state will give this child for their scholarship,” White said.
The scholarship calculator is on the state’s website, at gadoe.org, and then found by searching for “special-needs scholarship.”
The calculator only works for students eligible for the program. The award sheet is the only proof a student needs of eligibility.
Hernandez-Freemire said that last year, the scholarships averaged around $5,700 per student. The year before, it was around $6,000. Information on the state’s website states scholarships range anywhere from $2,500 to $13,500.
She said the funds available have gone down somewhat over recent years due to austerity cuts. Information on the Department of Education’s website states a “student’s scholarship award is the same amount of state funds that would have been given to a school system if a student had continued attending a public school.”