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A bailout that works: Vouchers for disabled kids

In this era of taxpayer-funded bailouts for failing auto makers, failing banks and failing underwriters, there is one bailout we can all support.

Parents should be able to bail out of public schools using their own tax dollars to transfer to the private school of their choice - especially when their neighborhood school hasn't worked.

Georgia students with disabilities are offered such a lifeline thanks to a new program we adopted in the General Assembly two years ago known as the Georgia Special Needs Scholarship. This voucher plan allows parents who are frustrated with their public school's inability to help their children earn a voucher funded with their own tax dollars to transfer to a private school.

During this past school year 1,596 pupils throughout Georgia including 166 Gwinnett students signed up for the scholarship to transfer to the private school. For parents of students with special-needs who want to use the voucher for the 2009-10 school year, they can go to www.specialedoptions.com by Sept. 11 to qualify for a scholarship and learn how to enroll in a private school.

Carol Frame of Lawrenceville is one of those fortunate ones who signed up her son Jeremy for the special-needs scholarship last summer and discovered it absolutely changed his life.

Jeremy, 12, was enrolled in an elementary school where he had consistent behavior problems and even battled depression. As one of 25 children in the class, he would often get into trouble with his teacher and would get so frustrated he would tear up his tests. Jeremy has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and is diagnosed with learning disabilities, especially when it comes to math. Despite additional assistance during the school day, Jeremy's academic life never improved.

After learning about the Georgia Special Needs Scholarship, Jeremy's mother enrolled him in Branch Christian Community School in Gwinnett. He qualified for a scholarship that covered his entire tuition - something that seemed like a gift from above for his mother who is a working, single mom.

After his first year at Branch, Jeremy's mother reports that he not only has minimal behavior problems but that he has earned A's in English and B's in math. The difference, she said, is that he is enrolled in a class of only eight students. Jeremy is finally getting the attention he needs.

"Having a special-needs kid is a long road," Frame told me. "But Jeremy has self confidence now and he likes his school. He has hope now and he is happy. I think Jeremy will be successful and can go on to college."

A host of academic studies have shown that minority children are overrepresented in special-education programs and have been since the creation of such programs, according a 2008 edition of the Exceptional Children Journal. But all children deserve the opportunity to transfer to a school of their choice if their neighborhood school isn't working for them - whether they have disabilities or not.

For parents of special-needs students who want to learn more about the Georgia Special Needs Scholarship, there are seven Gwinnett private schools currently accepting students for the upcoming school year. More may be added to the list by mid-summer. Parents who believe their special-needs child may learn better in a different setting should explore this school choice option.

As long as a child has been in a public school the prior school year and has an Individualized Education Program (IEP), he or she may qualify for the new voucher. At www.specialedoptions.com parents can determine the amount of scholarship that would be awarded to their son or daughter and determine schools accepting the voucher.

The Georgia Special Needs Scholarship is a program that is getting good reviews from policy makers, educators and moms like Frame because parents, not the government, determine what academic setting is best for their child. Parents do know best.

Melvin Everson, a state Representative from Snellville, is chairman of the School Choice subcommittee of the House Education Committee.