[In addition to the usual disclaimer that accompanies these columns, I’m going to start this one out with an extra special one: I am a California attorney. I was raised in the Midwest, but have lived in California for the last 15 years and have practiced law exclusively in this state. When I was asked to write about an issue particular to special education in the state of Georgia, I had some reservations. However, as someone who works closely with parents who have become professionals at advocating for their kids, I know how hard it is to say “no” to the mom of a special needs child. When I tell you that it was a special mom/advocate who asked me, our own Julia Roberts, you’ll understand why I immediately got to work on it! Through my research, I found that several other states, including Arizona, Florida and Ohio also have scholarship and school choice programs for special needs students. The issues to be aware of will be similar from state to state and I will be analyzing them from the perspective of federal law.]
The Georgia Special Needs Scholarship (GSNS) program, originally proposed as Senate Bill 10, was enacted in 2007 to provide additional school choice for students with IEPs in the state of Georgia. The eligibility requirements are simple, but appear to be strictly enforced. I recommend that you consult http://www.doe.k12.ga.us/sb10.aspx to determine whether your family qualifies.
There are three major elements of the program for those students who meet the criteria to participate:
1. Eligible students may transfer to other schools in or outside of their school district of residence.
2. Eligible students may be placed at a state school for those with visual or auditory impairments.
3. Eligible students may obtain a scholarship to cover some or all of the costs of private school.
Of course, each of these options comes with its own set of caveats and exceptions. Principally, for options one and two, the receiving district or school must have room for your child and must be considered an appropriate placement given your child’s needs.
Option three, which is the scholarship money that is applied to private school tuition, is the trickiest of them all. First, the private school that you choose must participate in the GSNS program. Second, the amount you receive depends upon a formula that takes into account the severity of your child’s disability and how much money the state has allocated for your child in the past. It has nothing to do with the cost of the private program. Without knowing what private school costs in Georgia, my guess is that the scholarship funds will not fully cover the cost of many private schools, particularly those geared towards students with special needs.
Finally (and here’s the big “but”), if you accept the scholarship funds, you must give up your child’s right to receive special education services. Your child will be treated like any other private school student with special needs—there may be services available in your district of residence, but it is entirely at the discretion of the school district whether your child receives them, and there is no individual entitlement to any service at all, which means there is no recourse to due process. Private schools (with few exceptions) are not required to adhere to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, so there is no recourse against the private school if your child’s special education needs are not met.
This all sounds a little abstract, so let’s consider a couple of potential examples:
Example 1: Sarah, who is seven years old, qualifies for special education as a student with autism. Since becoming eligible for special education at an early age, she has received speech and language therapy, occupational therapy and specialized instruction at her public school. Sarah meets the eligibility criteria for GSNS and her parents would like to send her to a private school that is designed for students with autism. The school is a participating school in GSNS. Tuition costs $10,000 per year. Assuming that Sarah is awarded approximately $6000, which was the average scholarship amount last year, her parents will be responsible for the balance of $4000. Because this is a specialized school, therapies are built into the daily program, including speech and language and occupational therapy, so Sarah’s parents are confident that she will continue to receive these services at appropriate levels to help her access the curriculum and make progress. In addition, because the private school is geared towards students with autism, they make use of the latest research-based interventions for curriculum delivery, such as Applied Behavior Analysis and Discrete Trial Training. Fortunately for Sarah, her parents are financially able to pay the difference between the scholarship amount and the total cost of tuition, so this is truly an option for them.
Would I recommend that Sarah’s parents take advantage of the GSNS program and place Sarah privately? The answer to that question would depend on a few things. How do they feel about Sarah’s current public school placement? If they are satisfied, there is no reason to look elsewhere. How would Sarah handle it if things didn’t work out and she needed to return to her public school placement in order to obtain appropriate services? Is this a child who struggles with change and upheaval? Do they fully understand the rights they are giving up? If they do understand the trade-offs, and if the answers to the other questions make sense, I believe that GSNS and private school could be a very positive option for Sarah.
Example 2: Jack is a ten-year-old child who is similar to Sarah in terms of disabilities and needs, but his parents are considering placement in a parochial school that is not necessarily geared towards students with disabilities. In that case, I would be much more careful about advising his parents on what they are giving up. I would want to know whether any related services (speech and language, occupational therapy, social skills training, etc.) will be available to him in his private school placement and if not, whether his parents are financially able to pay not only any difference in tuition, but the cost of private therapies as well.
Determining whether to seek out a private school placement could be extremely difficult if your child’s disabilities are more subtle, such as in the case of a specific learning disability. Sometimes, children with mild learning disabilities are able to function quite well with simple alterations to their programs, such as smaller classes, more one-on-one attention from the teacher and extra time to complete their work, all of which are often available in a private school setting. However, the private school is not obligated to provide any of these things and typically does not develop an IEP for your child with all of the necessary services and accommodations spelled out.
It is also difficult to predict how students with emotional disturbances will handle different placements. If the private school option is a therapeutic school designed for students who can do the work, but sometimes need a time out, need to be able to readily access a counselor or who get easily overwhelmed when the work piles up, then GSNS could be a great way for a family to be able to afford the right school for their child. On the other hand, if parents are considering a more traditional private school with smaller classes in the hopes that this will be sufficient structure to help an emotionally disturbed child, they may be giving up a host of therapies and services that would be available through the public school system.
Another wrinkle is that children are constantly changing and so are their needs. A placement that works right now, may not work in the future. In Georgia, a move from public to private school with the help of GSNS must happen at the beginning of the school year. However, if your child is not successful at his or her private school, you can return to the public school system at any time. If you do return to public school, it is likely that you will have to make a request for your child to be evaluated for special education and start the process from scratch.
If I were the parent of a special needs child in Georgia, or in another state that has a special needs scholarship program, I would first read everything I could about the program in order to fully understand its risks and benefits. It’s clear that this option is not for all, especially those who cannot afford the difference between the scholarship amount and private school tuition and/or those who cannot afford to bear the cost of the multitude of therapies that their children may need. However, it does appear that in certain circumstances, GSNS can increase the likelihood that a child will have his or her special education needs met.
As an attorney, I can only caution parents that under the Georgia model, by accepting the private school scholarship money, they would be giving up a federal entitlement that their child currently has. That’s not to say that it wouldn’t work or be a good option for your child. However, it is important to consider the risks involved and understand what you are giving up in exchange for the tuition money.
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