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Georgia Special Needs Scholarship is changing lives
0801Randy Hicks
Randy Hicks

Election-year politics can make cynics out of just about anyone, so every once in awhile it's worth pausing to look at the remarkable good that elected officials can achieve, particularly when they rise above both partisan and special interests.

One of the best examples of positive lawmaking occurred in 2007 when the Georgia legislature passed Senate Bill 10, which allows parents of special-needs children in public schools to receive a scholarship to send those children to the public or private school that they deem to be best suited to their needs.

It often takes many years to determine the relative benefits or drawbacks of laws passed by the General Assembly. But in the case of the Georgia Special Needs Scholarship Program, the positive effects have been immediate and dramatic.

The lawmakers who voted for the bill — which passed the House on the final day of the 2007 session by a single vote — should find great satisfaction in the good they've achieved.

Jeremy, a fifth-grader from Duluth, is a shining example of the good that's been accomplished through this program. Born premature, Jeremy was diagnosed ADHD and had a learning disability. His problems mounted in elementary school, where he struggled academically and was repeatedly threatened with suspension due to disruptive behavior, making it clear that Jeremy needed more structure and individualized instruction than his public school could provide.

With the Georgia Special Needs Scholarship, Jeremy's mom was able to find a program better suited for her son's needs. The change has been good for Jeremy; his behavior has improved, he's joined the choir, and has gained confidence in the classroom.
In the course of a year, Jeremy went from being functionally illiterate and failing math to functioning well and thriving academically.
That's not just a change of scenery, that's a changed life.

Nicholas, of Lawrenceville, has a similar story. Struggling with hearing loss, Nicholas had a hard time keeping up in his large, public school classroom. Although his teachers tried to be accommodating and he received help outside of class, he still brought home poor report cards.

When Nicholas' parents received a letter about the Georgia Special Needs Scholarship, they knew it was the answer to their challenges. Armed with a Special Needs Scholarship, they enrolled Nicholas in a private school with classes half the size of what he was used to, and he began to excel. Now he comes home with straight A's, and "there are no more tears or fighting over homework," says Nicholas' mom, Jennifer.

Again, Nicholas didn't just experience a change of scenery, he experienced a changed life.

Why do I put it that way? Because kids who struggle academically in the manner that Jeremy and Nicholas did are much less likely to graduate. And kids who fail to graduate are much more likely to struggle in finding jobs and forming healthy, stable families. In other words, they're more likely to experience significant hardship and poverty.

That's why I speak of "changed lives" when I speak of Jeremy and Nicholas. But there are others — many others — who are benefitting from the program.

In the recent school year, just three years after the program was launched, over 2,000 special-needs students participated in the program statewide. How are the program participants doing? The Georgia Department of Education reported that during the 2008-2009 school year, 89 percent of scholarship recipients improved in math and 87 percent improved in reading.

Please read that again, because it explains why the program is so important. It also explains why parents are exceptionally pleased.

The Center for an Educated Georgia (which is run out of the organization I lead, Georgia Family Council) just released the findings of a survey of GSNS Program parents. The survey reveals that 95 percent of parents whose children are participating in the program are "very satisfied" or "satisfied" in their current school.

On average, families rate their new private school as an 8.9 on a scale of 0-10, as compared with a 3.5 for their former school.
The survey also gives us a glimpse of who is taking advantage of this program: largely working- and middle-class families, 76 percent of which pay more than $3,000 out-of-pocket to cover tuition and fees not covered by the scholarship.

Now, I want to be clear here — the success of this program is not an indictment of all public schools. Many parents of special-needs kids haven't felt the need to move their children to a private school because they are pleased with the program being offered in their own public school. That's good.

But there are other parents out there, some of whom are concerned about the effectiveness of the program in which they currently have their children, who don't even know about the Georgia Special Needs Scholarship Program. In their case, the GSNS Program might be the answer to their concerns.

So, here's what we've got: Georgia Special Needs Scholarships are going to working- and middle-class families whose exceptional satisfaction with the program stems from the fact that their children are doing better academically then they were doing in their previous academic setting.

Is politics getting you down? Do you sometimes feel as if public officials are all talk and no action? Do you wonder if any education reforms will ever produce positive results for our kids?

My answers to those questions are yes, yes and yes.

But the success of the Georgia Special Needs Scholarship Program encourages me and reminds me that our elected public officials can do great and positive things when they put families and kids first, and not politics and special interests.

Randy Hicks is the president of Georgia Family Council, a nonprofit research and education organization committed to fostering conditions in which individuals, families and communities thrive.