By Dan Lips
Parental choice in education may be coming soon to another state. This fall, Georgia public school students with disabilities will be eligible for school vouchers to attend private schools under just-passed state legislation. If Governor Sonny Perdue signs the bill, Georgia will be the thirteenth state to offer private school choice options to parents.
On Friday, the General Assembly voted 91 to 84 to approve Senate Bill 10, the "Georgia Special Needs Scholarship Act," which would provide tuition scholarships to public school students with disabilities. Supporters project that as many as 4,100 children could participate in the program this fall. Each scholarship would be worth about $9,000, around what the state pays to educate a special-needs student in public school. The State Senate approved the measure by a vote of 35 to 16 in January.
If Governor Perdue signs the legislation, Georgia would follow Florida, Ohio, Utah, and Arizona in offering school choice options to children with disabilities.
The Georgia program is modeled after Florida's McKay Scholarship Program for Children with Disabilities. Launched in 1999 and expanded in 2000, the McKay program gives every disabled student in the state the opportunity to attend the school of their parents' choice. Eligible students can use scholarships to transfer to a new public school or enroll in one of the 751 participating private schools.
Last year, 17,300 students received scholarships through the program, with an average scholarship amount of $6,927. The program's success is evident in the steady participation gains since it went statewide in 2000, when just 970 children enrolled.
Participating families have good things to say about the McKay program. In 2003, the Manhattan Institute found that more than 90 percent of the parents of participating students were satisfied with their child's school. The survey also found that over 90 percent of parents whose children left the program believe it should remain available to those who wish to use it.
The success of Florida's McKay program has inspired other states to offer targeted scholarships. Since 2003, Ohio has offered tuition scholarships to children with autism. In 2004, Utah created the Carson Smith Scholarship Program for children with disabilities. And last year, Arizona lawmakers enacted a similar scholarship program for children with disabilities. According to the Alliance for School Choice, a dozen states are considering proposals to create scholarships for special-needs students this year.
The Georgia legislature's approval of the Special Needs Scholarship Act was driven by strong popular support. A March 2007 poll of 1,200 likely Georgia voters conducted by Strategic Vision found that 59 percent favored the plan and only 20 percent opposed it. Overall, 82 percent of respondents believed that parents make better education choices for their children than school officials.
Citizens and voters realize that school choice is a common-sense policy and long overdue. School choice programs have been shown to improve families' satisfaction with their children's education and boost the classroom performance of participating children.
If the legislation is signed, Georgia parents and taxpayer may soon see these benefits for themselves.
All that remains to be seen is whether Gov. Sonny Perdue, a Republican, will sign the bill. Thousands of children and families are watching with anticipation.