While some of us rushed to file taxes before this week’s deadline, parents and schools were finishing up their scholarship applications to beat the first application deadline for Ohio’s Jon Peterson Special Needs Scholarship.
The scholarship, which extended the successful Autism Scholarship to students with any disability, is already hugely popular in its first year with more than 1,500 student applications.
The scholarship got off to a slow start because of contested administrative rules that pushed back the scholarship start time. With just two months to apply, parents scrambled to locate the programs in their area that would be best suited for their children. School Choice Ohio held information sessions across the state to educate families and support groups about the new scholarship.
For their part, schools scrambled to hire the staff they needed, register with the Ohio Department of Education, and advertise their services to local families. After School Choice Ohio and our partners held nine regional trainings and answered innumerable emails and phone calls, we were thrilled to see private schools expanding their special needs programs, parents of students with special needs working with private schools to develop new programs, and a public district in Wayne Co (Northwestern Local Schools) in line to serve scholarship recipients from neighboring districts.
By the time the first application window ended, parents were able to choose from 167 providers in 41 counties. Clearly private schools are eager to serve students with special needs when they have the resources. Private schools typically cost less than half of public school. So the scholarship (worth $7,000-$20,000 depending on the severity of the students’ disability) allows these low-cost schools to offer or expand their special education services.
Throughout this process, our staff – especially our wonderful Special Needs Outreach Manager Cheryl Bowshier – heard story after story of parents who were absolutely thrilled to have this new scholarship option available to them. In helping parents navigate the school selection and application process, Cheryl heard countless stories like these:
- Tera, a mom in Mansfield, worked with her private school to help them develop a new program for students with Down syndrome. After having advocated for the passage and creation of the scholarship for years, Tera is now working to provide a new innovative program for other local students like her son Sam.
- Laura, a mom in Dayton, told about how her nonverbal son was so badly bullied in public school that he had begun to wet his pants in fear. Without any other options, she had chosen to homeschool him but felt he really needed to be in a school setting. He will now be able to attend a safe, friendly school.
- Sharon is the foster mom to five boys with special needs, one of whom had slipped through the cracks in his school all the way through to 11th grade. On the brink of tears, she was stunned to learn about the scholarship this spring, saying “I just cannot believe this is real.” He is now slated to attend a well-respected local private school to finish out his high school career.
The vision of the heroic legislative champions who went to bat year after year for the creation of this scholarship is being realized.
Just a year ago, these parents did not have this option. Just six months ago, these parents didn’t know they had the option. Now, parents are empowered to choose, empowered to fight the bureaucracy, empowered to avoid lengthy legal battles, and empowered to secure their families’ rights.
The long-term benefits of providing the specialized instruction to reach ALL students are profound – fewer dropouts, more students prepared to live independently, the bar being raised higher, better individualized instruction, and thousands of students with special needs pulled out of the cracks.
With the Jon Peterson Special Needs Scholarship, parents are empowered with options and student needs are placed at the center. If this first application cycle is any indication, this scholarship will join Ohio’s three other voucher programs as a life-changing piece of Ohio’s education landscape.