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Controversial Senate bill passes

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POSTED: February 22, 2007 5:07 a.m.
By Andrea Washington
Coastal Courier (Hinesville, GA) Staff Writer
awashington@coastalcourier.com

Families of special needs children are one step closer to receiving scholarships that will allow them more choice in their child’s education.
The Georgia Senate passed the controversial Georgia Special Needs Act, Senate Bill 10, last week in a 31 to 23 party line vote.
“It’s an exciting day for families of children with special needs,” Senate President Pro Tempore Eric Johnson (R-Savannah) said. “We have completely changed the debate on education.”
The bill, sponsored by Johnson, is designed to allow parents of special needs children to use a Georgia Special Needs Scholarship to educate their children either in a different public or private school if they are dissatisfied with their child’s current public school.  
The scholarship amounts will be based on the state’s share of the Individualized Education Plan (IEP) developed for each child’s specific needs and will average $9,000 per year.
Georgia officials anticipate more than 4,000 students will take advantage of the scholarship next year, if the bill becomes law.
According to Johnson, SB 10 is modeled after Florida’s McKay Scholarship Program for Students with Disabilities. The 6-year-old program has grown from funding less than 1,000 students in its first year to more than 17,000 students last year.
Studies done by the Manhattan Institute found 93 percent of the parents in the program were “very satisfied” or “satisfied” with their child’s new school versus a 33 percent satisfaction rate with the public school their child was previously enrolled.
Studies also showed improved student achievement due to smaller class sizes, lower discipline problems and higher self-esteem.
Despite modeling SB 10 after the successful McKay Scholarship, opponents have complained the bill exists to fatten the pockets of private schools and reduce funding to public schools. Johnson, however, said public school systems would actually be left with more money.  
“Only the state’s portion of the funds will follow the child to the selected public or private school as a scholarship,” he said. “The local funding will remain in the school system and serve fewer students.”
The senator also called suggestions that parents will flee from public schools and flood private schools unfounded.
“In Florida, only 5 percent of the parents have used it (the McKay Scholarship) because the public school system does a good job,” Johnson said. “But there are kids with unique needs and need something different, even if it’s just a smaller class.”
With SB 10 now sitting in the House, the senator said he expects opposition to continue, but expects victory.
“It’s by far the most controversial bill we’ve dealt with,” he said. “I think it will pass, but it will take a long time. I’m already working with some House members.”
Johnson added the core decision for lawmakers is determining who knows what is best for special needs students.
“The big debate-the heart of it-is who is going to decide what is in the best interest of the child with special needs, the government or the parents?” he said. “What happens if he or she is forced to stay in the system?”

Eligibilities: To be eligible for a Georgia Special Needs Scholarship, students must suffer from one or more of the following disabilities:
- Autism
- Deaf/blind
- Deaf/hard of hearing
- Emotional and behavioral disorder
- Intellectual disability
- Orthopedic impairment
- Other health impairment
- Specific learning disability
- Speech-language impairment
- Traumatic brain injury
- Visual impairment  
Students must have also attended a Georgia public school the previous school year and had an Individualized Education Program (IEP) written by the school.

 

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