Should Georgia special needs voucher pay for tutoring, therapy?

Parents urging more flexibility in Georgia’s special needs scholarship made their case at Friday’s legislative hearing. Their children’s educational, medical and mental health challenges transcend not only public schools, they sometimes exceed what specialized private schools can do, and it’s hard not to sympathize with their desire to use state dollars to pay for therapy and tutoring.

The House study committee's discussion of Georgia's 11-year-old Special Needs Scholarship Act underscored the shift in how public education is perceived. Once viewed as a public good that merited a pooling of resources to yield a public benefit, education is increasingly regarded as a private consumable.

An example: Some Georgia lawmakers avoid mentioning funding schools and talk instead about funding students. And those taxes that everyone pays to support schools – including people with no children or grown children – are now described as the parent's money or the student's money, never the community's money. In fact, a bill this year to broaden the Georgia Special Needs Scholarship Act would rebrand it "the Georgia Individualized Education Account Act."

Clearly, some individual students benefit from the ability to use tax dollars to buy educational services outside their local public school. Like any bureaucracy, public education has its faults, including an inability to customize instruction or adapt quickly to change. But public education still remains a foundation of our country and is worth preserving and improving.

Georgia ought to think carefully about broadening the parameters of its special needs scholarship, which is essentially a targeted school voucher.  Now, state checks are issued to the 272 participating private schools, all of which are accredited. It would be more complicated for the state to vet and pay hundreds of tutors and therapists.

The scholarship can only be awarded now to a student with a documented disability enrolled in a public school for a year. The voucher, which averages $5,700 a year per student, can only be used to attend a private school.

Those stipulations shut out parents whose kids aren’t finding success in traditional classroom settings, five of whom shared their stories with House members.

A former Gwinnett teacher now homeschooling her adopted children said they would benefit if the scholarship was opened to homeschoolers for tutoring and therapies, including speech, physical, occupational and equine. Her seven children face multiple struggles related to the chaos of their early lives and, in some cases, fetal alcohol syndrome and visual impairments, that render a traditional classroom unworkable, she explained.

An Atlanta mother said she pulled her bright daughter with autism out of a public middle school because the girl grew anxious and overwhelmed in such a big setting. Her daughter’s therapist recommended homeschooling to alleviate the anxiety. The mother’s goal is to homeschool now and then enroll her daughter in a small, flexible high school. She asked lawmakers to drop the requirement that students only qualify for the voucher after a full year in public school.

State Rep. Scott Hilton, R-Peachtree Corners, sponsored a bill this year to loosen restrictions around how special needs dollars could be used.

House Bill 801 would permit the funds to cover private tutoring services, transportation, online learning, occupational, behavioral, physical and speech-language therapies and computer hardware or other technological devices. House Education Committee Chair Brooks Coleman, R-Duluth, called for more study of the issue, and Friday's hearing was part of the fact-gathering.

Several advocates, including two from Florida which offers a similar voucher with fewer restrictions, endorsed an expansion of Georgia's program.

But there were calls for caution from Garry McGiboney, state Department of Education deputy superintendent for external affairs. McGiboney said DOE routinely examines programs and provides recommendations to the Legislature, noting the agency recently offered 31 recommendations regarding school safety.

However, McGiboney said DOE only had one recommendation on the special needs voucher: “We ask the Legislature to please be careful in altering the special needs scholarship statute. It will jeopardize the funding and the effectiveness, and could disrupt the lives and education of children who are benefiting from the program.”

Angela Palm, director of policy and legislative services for the Georgia School Boards Association, raised other concerns about revamping the program. While it's assumed the special needs voucher is an unqualified success, Palm pointed out no concrete evidence exists.

She noted the largest demographic remains white families with boys, the case since the program began. According to the DOE data: Of the 4,553 students enrolled in 2016-17, 68 percent were male. Fifty-four percent of the students were white, while 35 percent were black.

Nearly seven out of 10 students receiving the voucher attended elementary school. Thirty percent had a specific learning disability; 28 percent a health impairment; 13 percent autism; and 10 percent a developmental delay.

Palm said Georgia doesn’t know or track what special services children receive once they transfer to a private school. The DOE evaluations don’t delve into attrition, neither asking why students left the public schools nor, if they turn around and exit the private schools, why. Nor does the state provide data on the achievement and progress of these students in their private schools.

Danielle LeSure, founder of the Atlanta-based advocacy group EdConnect, said, "What I have found sometimes with private schools is they are not letting parents know about the progress of their students." She suggested allowing parents to anonymously provide feedback on the private schools in the program.

A problem identified at the hearing:  Rural parents cannot find private schools able or willing to handle their child’s learning needs. I’m not sure those rural parents would have any more luck finding relevant tutors or therapists.

The House study committee has a lot of work ahead of it as this is a complex issue. I agree with the GSBA that we ought to figure out how well the special ed vouchers have worked in terms of student progress and achievement before we broaden the program to include tutors, therapies, online courses and computers.

Your thoughts?