Marietta parent: Georgia Special Needs Scholarship was lifeline for my son

Gov. Brian Kemp says a few words to a child witnessing the signing of several education bills on May 6, 2021,  in Liberty Plaza at the Georgia State Capitol in Atlanta. Among the bills was Senate Bill 47, which expands access to the Georgia Special Needs Scholarship Program by including students with a diagnosis for a variety of conditions — from autism and cancer to drug or alcohol abuse — that have qualified them for certain accommodations, such as more time to take tests. CHRISTINA MATACOTTA FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

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Gov. Brian Kemp says a few words to a child witnessing the signing of several education bills on May 6, 2021, in Liberty Plaza at the Georgia State Capitol in Atlanta. Among the bills was Senate Bill 47, which expands access to the Georgia Special Needs Scholarship Program by including students with a diagnosis for a variety of conditions — from autism and cancer to drug or alcohol abuse — that have qualified them for certain accommodations, such as more time to take tests. CHRISTINA MATACOTTA FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

In a guest column, Marietta mother Tiffany Pearce heralds the benefits to her son from the Georgia Special Needs Scholarship.

A taxpayer-supported voucher, the scholarship was created by the Georgia Legislature in 2007 for students with disabilities who have an Individualized Education Program. On average, the voucher pays about $6,300 for each of the 5,000 Georgia students who use it to subsidize their private school tuition.

In 2021, the Legislature expanded eligibility to public school students with “504 plans.” Students with 504 plans can be served in regular classrooms but require accommodations such as more time for tests or note-taking assistance.

By Tiffany Pearce

Diagnosed with autism at an early age, my son Aidan received additional diagnoses of learning challenges and began having episodes at age 8. He would pummel himself with punches, bang his head, and later have no memory of it happening. He felt so hopeless, he said words that would haunt any parent: “Mommy, I want to go to heaven.”

Our local public school was incapable of addressing his needs. They treated him not as a student with special needs but as a discipline problem. I started to receive calls from the school, not to seek a solution for my son but to threaten to expel or suspend him.

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Tiffany Pearce

Credit: Courtesy photo

Tiffany Pearce

Credit: Courtesy photo

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Tiffany Pearce

Credit: Courtesy photo

Credit: Courtesy photo

We had no choice at that point but to pull him out of his public school. We spent the next year and a half searching for answers, for the right fit for Aidan. We had to find a private option but there aren’t many affordable options among schools capable of serving children like Aidan.

We eventually discovered a private school in Woodstock where school administrators told me they “want Aidan.” It was the first time I’d heard those words and it sparked a light at the end of a long, dark tunnel. Finally, Aidan had a place where he belonged and could thrive.

Without financial aid, we simply wouldn’t have the resources to cover Aidan’s tuition. For my family and thousands of others, the Georgia Special Needs Scholarship has provided a lifeline.

When parents first face these challenges, they’re overwhelmed, and they certainly aren’t experts on what resources are out there. What you don’t know can, in fact, hurt you.

I want to make sure more families like mine are aware of the Georgia Special Needs Scholarship and take advantage of this life-changing state program. First passed in 2007, the scholarship allowed the state portion of a child’s public education funding to go toward private school tuition for students who have an Individualized Education Program.

In 2021, the General Assembly expanded access to students with 504 plans, which are special accommodations in public schools for students, such as giving them more time to finish a test than other students. It’s estimated that there are 27,000 students in Georgia with 504 plans eligible for state funds.

The Georgia Department of Education offers a calculator on its website that tells families how much in scholarship money is available to their child for the upcoming school year. There are 250 private schools across the state today approved to accept the state funding.

The special needs scholarship isn’t needed by every child who qualifies. Most are well served by dedicated staff at their local public schools. But when the local public school can’t meet the needs of students, parents need to know there are options, not just dead ends.

Because my family had an option through this program, Aidan, now 15, is on a path to success. Without options, I can’t bear the thought of what would have happened to him.

If my story sounds like yours and you’re searching for answers or trying to figure out how to pay for the education your child deserves, go to the Department of Education’s website today and begin the process of qualifying for this scholarship.

Every child deserves to feel wanted and excited to learn — just like Aidan does now.