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Special needs act is historic
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On the last night of the session, after a dramatic three-hour debate, Speaker Glenn Richardson cast the tie breaking vote to pass SB 10 and give Georgia its first educational voucher program. My Georgia Special Needs Scholarship Act will allow parents of children with physical, emotional or developmental disabilities in public schools to apply for scholarships for their child’s special education and use it for any other participating public school or private school that offers a better environment for their child.

The amount of the scholarship would be based on the state’s share of the Individualized Education Plan (IEP) developed for their child’s unique needs. This is estimated to average about $9,000 in Georgia. In short, the GSN Scholarship allows parents to use some of the government funding for their child’s special education to send their children to another public or a private school of their choice. Once it is fully operational, about 15,000 children are expected to take advantage of the scholarships.

Public schools do a great job with most special needs students. Teachers and administrators are professional and dedicated. Yet all children are different and this new law will give parents more options for placing their child. Their neighborhood public school may be very good, but it may not be what the parent believes their special child needs.

A choice to leave should not be seen as an attack on public schools, but simply recognition that all children are individuals and a different school might more closely meet the needs of the student and the parents.

No new regulations or interference follows the child to the private school. They will maintain their independence and can choose to participate in the scholarship program or not. They can designate how many and what type of special needs children they can accept. Even religious schools can continue to operate just as they do today. And the child can be expelled from the private school like any other child. The market will create new schools to handle unique special needs such as autistic or ADD children.

Fundamentally, I believe that parents are in the best position to know their children and their unique needs and deserve the right to make the most appropriate decisions for their own children. This is especially true for parents of children with special needs. They struggle daily with health care, child care, feeding and transportation challenges. These families have so many hurdles — the ability to choose the most appropriate education for their children will no longer be one of them.

Presently, there are no consequences for a public school system who is failing to help a special needs child. The parents and children get no relief unless they can afford a lawyer to sue. But parents would rather choose a school than sue a school. With this new law, there is true accountability because the parent can move their child — from the public school to a private school or from the private school back to the public school. Choice benefits the child.

At its core, this is about who gets to make the decision about educating a child with special needs — the parents or the government. Children don’t belong to the Board of Education and they don’t exist to serve the needs of government. They belong to their parents and the government is there to serve the needs of their children.

This scholarship program changed the whole debate. Instead of asking what happens to the system if the child is allowed to leave, we asked what happens to the child if he or she was forced to stay. The legislature came down on the side of parents and children.

Sen. Eric Johnson (R-Savannah) is the president pro tem of the state Senate.