Governor Deal Signs Brenau Student-inspired Law Benefiting Military’s Special Needs Children
Governor Nathan Deal today signed into law a legislative act inspired by a group of Brenau University occupational therapy graduate students that would speed state educational benefits to special needs children of military personnel based in Georgia.
The new law started as a 2014 project by four Brenau students in a graduate-level public health administration course. After the students presented the proposal to some Georgia legislators, the idea developed legs. The measure was one of the first bills introduced during the 2015 General Assembly session, and it received overwhelming approval in both the Georgia State Senate and state House of Representatives.
With three of the four students gathered around him, Deal signed the bill during his annual post-legislative report to the Atlanta Press Club. Gainesville, Georgia-based Brenau has for the past five years sponsored Deal’s appearances before the press club members because Deal is also from Gainesville and holds an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from the university from his days as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives.
The four students involved – Ashley McCoy of Maysville, Georgia; Allison Guisasola of Braselton, Georgia; Shelby Wrenn of Clarkesville, Georgia; and Rachel Strazynski Sushner, originally from Atlanta and now living in Baltimore, Maryland – all received Master of Occupational Therapy degrees in May 2014. McCoy, who was scheduled to be on her honeymoon, was the only one who did not attend the bill-signing ceremony.
Deal praised the efforts of the students and said that he agreed to sign the bill at the ceremony away from the state capitol at Brenau’s request. But he added that he was happy to do so because it is a good way to help military personnel.
“Veterans sacrifice in their time and [their] exposure to danger to protect and support all of us,” Deal said.
Philip Wilheit of Gainesville, a long-time member of the Board of Trustees of private, not-for-profit Brenau, introduced the students to the close to 200 people who attended the luncheon event.
Wilheit also serves as a member of the Board of Regents, which oversees all the state-owned higher education institutions in Georgia. Deal appointed Wilheit to the prestigious post five years ago as one of his first actions as Georgia governor.
“These remarkable young women from Brenau literally got the ball rolling,” Wilheit told the luncheon group. “The Georgia legislators who are with us today picked it up and got it passed during the recent session of the General Assembly. Now, it is ready for the governor’s signature today.”
The legislation, identified as House Bill 62, modifies the Georgia Special Needs Scholarship (GSNS) Program, which provides financial assistance for students with special needs or learning disabilities who attend Georgia public schools and are served under an Individualized Education Plan (IEP).
The program grants vouchers to these students to help their families pay tuition to attend a private school if they determine that a private school would be better able to provide the specialized instruction they need. However, there is a one-year residency requirement for these services. The bill waives the residency requirement for a special needs student when the student’s parent or parents are active duty military service members stationed in Georgia within the previous year.
“It’s a real simple bill, it is good government, it’s good for our students,” said Georgia State Sen. Butch Miller (R-Gainesville), who presented HB 62 to the Senate. Sen. Miller attended the Press Club event as a Brenau guest along with State Rep. Carl Rogers, (R-Gainesville), who voted in favor of the bill on the House floor. State Rep. Kevin Tanner (R-Dawsonville) and Sen. Steve Gooch (R-Dahlonega), also attended. They came to the Brenau campus last year to hear the original proposal from the four students. Tanner introduced it in the House and Gooch agreed to be its primary sponsor in the Senate.
One of the requirements of Brenau’s occupational therapy master’s degree program is that students complete a course in public health policy, a course taught by Dr. David Miller – the clinical psychologist-turned-business-professor. Miller said he directed the four students to “come up with an idea to modify an existing piece of legislation, what they thought would be a good idea, and present this as a policy proposal.” The students determined it was difficult for the children of military personnel to qualify for one of the state’s special needs scholarships because of the law’s one-year residency requirement.
“We felt like that was such an easily amendable thing to look into, trying to get them therapy as soon as possible,” said Sushner.
“This really caught my attention because of the military presence in my district,” Tanner said. “It was something that really needed to be addressed.” Tanner subsequently had a bill drafted to waive the residency requirement for special needs students whose parents are in Georgia on active military service.
Sen. Miller said the bill intrigued him because people on active military service are frequently transferred to assignments in other states or deployed overseas, so it would be more difficult for them to meet the one-year residency requirement to receive a voucher. That is frequently the case when the personnel jump quickly between several bases while preparing for overseas deployment in the war zone, leaving their families behind.
According to the state Department of Education, the number of people potentially impacted by the measure is difficult to assess. The department estimates that there are about 2,600 children from military families with IEPs, but it says it does not know how many of them have already been granted a special needs voucher, or how many of them would qualify for a voucher after the residency requirement is waived. During the 2013-14 school year, Georgia spent about $18.4 million on vouchers for 3,416 special needs students, for an average of $5,386 student. If 100 students were able to get a voucher by applying under the new rule, it would cost the state $538,600.
Although unplanned, the proposal from the students almost coincided with the university’s recognition as one of the most veteran- and military-friendly higher education institutions in the country. The magazine U.S. News and World Report last summer ranked Brenau No. 12 on its “Best for Vets” chart, higher than any other school in Georgia in the rankings of comprehensive universities in the Southeast.
Wilheit in his remarks pointed to another coincidence: he said he was asked to provide the welcome to the governor at the Press Club event because Brenau President Ed Schrader was aboard the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Stennis for the first days of its Pacific Ocean deployment – part of a group of colleges “focused on furthering STEM education and leadership development in young women. The Navy and other branches of the military need female leaders with backgrounds in science, math and other STEM disciplines, and they are counting on private and public schools to help develop those leaders.”
Brenau Professor Miller, who is not related to the state senator, agreed that his students’ project was a nice fit with Brenau’s initiatives to become more military friendly, particularly as it prepares to open a new campus in Jacksonville, Florida, which has a heavy population of active duty and retired military families. Although he said that the cost to the state is minimal, the savings to individual military families is significant. Plus, he added, “it was just the right thing to do.”
“It’s nice for the students, and for me,” he said, “to be able to go back to subsequent classes and say, ‘Hey, you think what you do here doesn’t have any consequences? Well, it does.’”