Path to college honors began with Georgia special needs voucher

Helen Smith’s son was among the first students to receive a special needs scholarship in 2007 after Georgia approved what was essentially a school voucher program for children with disabilities.

“We applied to schools while the legislation was still pending with our fingers crossed and many prayers that the governor would sign it,” said the Atlanta mother.

Before the law went into effect, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution interviewed Smith about why she was seeking a private school for her son, Cameron, a rising Atlanta Public Schools sixth-grader with a mild form of cerebral palsy that affected his ability to decipher instructions and read.

“I am concerned about him being in public school in middle school because I really feel the environment is not controlled enough discipline-wise. I’m hoping for a kinder, gentler environment,” she said at the time.

Last week, a proud Smith watched Cameron graduate Reinhardt University magna cum laude with a bachelor’s of fine arts degree in musical theater. He will join an Ohio theater company that performs in schools, but not until his Reinhardt University Chamber Singers perform at the Vatican later this month.

“The scholarship had a lot to do with his success. Roman Catholic Archbishop Gregory has been very supportive of students with disabilities in the Catholic schools here and my son received special support in both middle and high schools. We could not have afforded to send him to seven years of Catholic school without the scholarship,” said his mom.

"As the author of Senate Bill 10, I was confident parents would seek the best school -- public or private, secular or faith-based -- for their child with special needs, if given the opportunity and some financial help. The story about Cameron Smith warmed my heart and affirmed the vision I had 12 years ago,” said former GOP State Sen. Eric Johnson, noting his bill passed only with the speaker of the House casting a rare deciding vote on the last day of the 2006 session.

“I hear regularly from parents whose children have benefitted from this voucher program, including some who have tried it and returned to their public schools. The response has been overwhelmingly positive and it's hard to believe how controversial this bill was," he said.

While his mother focused on the academic progress from the smaller classes and personal attention offered in parochial schools, Cameron talked about his growth in his faith. “I knew going off to college was going to be a difficult experience, but God was on my side and I had people back home to support me. My faith was shaken up a few times, but, over the course of college, my faith got stronger and stronger and I was able to lift other people up. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

The scholarship enabled Smith and her husband to enroll Cameron in St. Peter Claver, then a $5,406-a-year Catholic school in Decatur. He attended Our Lady of Mercy High School in Fayette County. “The state scholarship never covered the whole tuition amount, but it made it possible for us to make up the difference and we received some financial aid,” said Smith, estimating Cameron received between $2000 and $3,000 a year from the special needs scholarship.

The special needs vouchers vary in amount based on the severity of the disability and the services the child had been receiving in a public school. In 2016-2017, the average voucher amount was $5,722.11. That year, 4,553 students received a voucher, at a total cost of $26 million.

Nearly 70 percent of the students receiving the voucher were male. Most of the recipients – 69 percent – attended elementary school. Thirty percent had a specific learning disability; 28 percent had a health impairment; 13 percent had autism; and 10 percent had a developmental delay.

Cameron attended an Atlanta elementary school outside his neighborhood that offered a program that addressed his learning issues. “While his public school education on the elementary level was great, I found the middle and high school programs lacking after visiting a couple of schools. I’m not sure he would be doing as well had he not had the opportunity to attend Catholic schools for middle and high school,” said his mother.

“I am a proud Atlanta Public Schools graduate myself. Unfortunately, the current climate in some public schools has created a public education crisis that we as a society need to correct before it is too late,” said Smith.

“Teachers tell me they don’t have the options they need to get kids who are behavior problems out of class,” she said. “If they could take three kids out of the class, teachers say it would improve the learning of all the other kids. I believe that school choice can be used to help some students succeed.”

"I am concerned the Georgia Department of Education no longer reports the scholarship student test scores in their annual report,” said Johnson. “This was the only way to assess whether the scholarships were working although parent satisfaction is overwhelming. When previously reported, test scores had been improving by at least one grade level in reading and math. I am also concerned about why the average scholarship amount has been dropping.”

"But successes like Cameron's, along with the personal stories I hear, continue to reassure me Georgia did the right thing and should consider expanding the program and doing serious research on the benefits of allowing more parents to have more choice on where to send their children."