Bumpy start to expanded special needs education voucher program stresses parents

By: - August 1, 2021 8:00 pm

LOUISVILLE, KY – MARCH 17: Students raise their hands to answer a teachers question during a socially distanced classroom session at Medora Elementary School on March 17, 2021 in Louisville, Kentucky. Today marks the reopening of Jefferson County Public Schools for in-person learning with new COVID-19 procedures in place. (Photo by Jon Cherry/Getty Images)

Six of Lori Ann Carter’s seven children are heading back to school Monday, and the past week has been a blur of supply shopping, open houses and preparing the little ones for a new year.

The seventh child is starting school a week later, and he won’t be with his siblings. That’s because a week before the first day of school, the family found out his scholarship for the Georgia Special Needs Scholarship fell by $2,000.

Instead, he’ll be heading to the local Georgia Network for Educational and Therapeutic Support program, or GNETS, which assists local school systems’ services for students with disabilities.

Three of Carter’s seven adopted children have special needs stemming from exposure to drugs or alcohol before birth. They cope with a number of challenges, including autism, severe ADHD, extreme school behavior issues and cerebral palsy. One boy uses a feeding tube and requires constant supervision while eating.

Carter said their private school with its smaller classes has been a godsend for her family, and she’s thankful for the scholarship that allows them to attend.

“We are so appreciative for this program, and this program means so much to so many families, and I am by no means complaining,” she said. “But I hope that the program can have a little bit more transparency and work better for the families and the kids that it serves and can capture their needs in a better way, like, when the calculator doesn’t work.”

To find out how much money their children are eligible to receive, parents enter their information into a calculator on the Georgia Department of Education website.

“You spent eight weeks of the summer hoping and praying that it’s going to be OK for the school year, and then starting the 15th or sometimes around the 10th, you start checking that calculator twice a day every day, waiting for it to come up,” Carter said.

“Two weeks isn’t enough to make decisions, and schools don’t want to wait, they want your commitment,” she added. “And once you sign that contract and that commitment, if your funding isn’t what you thought and it goes down, $2,000 or $3,000, you’re locked into that contract. And it’s not just an emotional hardship and a planning hardship, it can end up being a financial hardship.”

Normally, the calculator becomes available in mid-July, said Christy Riggins, Georgia field director for the American Federation for Children, which advocates for public school alternatives. But this year, parents reported they could not access it until July 26, one week before many schools were set to start.

That’s made planning even more difficult for the families who rely on the scholarship, or school voucher program.

“Because the school calendar goes from July to the end of June, the DOE doesn’t actually have those numbers until the very beginning of July, and then they have to put everything into the calculator,” Riggins said. “So feasibly, I don’t know that parents will ever see a calculator go up earlier than mid-July.”

According to the state, this year’s calculator came out later than expected because of a bill expanding eligibility.

“The calculator was available slightly later this year (July 27 compared to typical availability the first week of July), because of the significant changes required by SB 47 – including the expansion of eligibility to students with 504 plans and changes to prior-year attendance requirements for eligibility, which made adjustments to the calculator necessary,” Georgia Department of Education spokeswoman Meghan Frick said in a statement.

Gov. Brian Kemp signed Senate Bill 47 into law this May. It expands the eligibility to students with 504 plans, in addition to those with Individualized Education Plans.

It is too early to say how many new students could potentially take advantage of the expanded program, the department said.

About 5,200 students with IEPs used the plan in the 2019-2020 school year out of just under 200,000 who were eligible.

“The unfortunate answer is that there is no good estimate or way of knowing how much the program will grow,” Riggins said. “Historically, a very small percentage of families participate. There are 54,000-plus students with 504 plans, but not all are eligible to participate.”

“It’s worth noting that the DOE not having the calculator operational — despite months of advance notice — will disadvantage families and could drive participation down as a result, leaving kids that would otherwise benefit tremendously out of the program,” she added.

The delay has been a major obstacle for parents whose children use the program, said Kenyonna Satterwhite of Jonesboro.

She began checking the education department website July 15 to see if her son would be able to go back to his special education private school.

“I wasn’t panicking yet because the website said mid-July, so I kept looking that whole week, and it still didn’t show up.”

He is scheduled to start school on Monday.

As the start of the school year came closer, Satterwhite began to worry. Her son, who is on the autism spectrum, struggled in public kindergarten, but two years later, she said he’s begun speaking and using sign language more, and he’s even memorized all of the U.S. presidents.

Satterwhite had to put down $400 to reserve her son’s spot in class at the end of the semester. If the scholarship didn’t come through, that money would have been gone, she said.

Luckily the funding came through, and Satterwhite is looking forward to sending her son back to the school he loves, but she would have liked the process to have been less stressful.

“I wish it would have come out at the end of the school year,” she said. “I wouldn’t have been stressing out about how much he was going to get and where he would go and all that stuff.”

Carter said she thought about appealing her son’s decision, but never heard any explanation of the process or received any form, and there’s no time to appeal in any case.

“And really, I’ve got seven kids, three with special needs. I’m just too tired to fight it,” she said. “If we get to GNETS and it’s horrible, we may just end up on hospital/homebound (a program for children with health issues that interfere with in-person school) through the school system and hope his scholarship amount goes up next year.”

For now, she’s planning to take her son to the parking lot of his new school so he can get accustomed to the place before they schedule a walk-through tour and she handles all the paperwork and other tasks necessary to get him enrolled.

She just wishes she had more time to get it all done.

“It puts a hardship on the school system, because for me to call them on Tuesday of this week, and say,’ Hey, he’s been staffed for GNET, and he’s coming back to Forsyth County, now everybody’s got to scramble, the school’s scrambling, I’m scrambling, he’s scrambling. So that’s hard.”

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Ross Williams
Ross Williams

Before joining the Georgia Recorder, Ross Williams covered local and state government for the Marietta Daily Journal.Williams' reporting took him from City Hall to homeless camps, from the offices of business executives to the living rooms of grieving parents. His work earned recognition from the Georgia Associated Press Media Editors and the Georgia Press Association, including beat reporting, business writing and non-deadline reporting. A native of Cobb County, Williams holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Atlanta's Oglethorpe University and a master’s in journalism from Northwestern University.