John R. LaPlante, Guest Columnist, Kansas City Star
Rep. Lance Kinzer and Rep. Mike Kiegerl, Republicans from Olathe, introduced an interesting and potentially significant useful piece of legislation last year. House Bill 2227 would give families of autistic students the ability to better match educational services to the needs of their children. Giving scholarships to special-needs students, as this bill does, is not a new idea. As I described in a report recently published by the Flint Hills Center for Public Policy, five states have scholarship programs for special-needs students.
Many of these students thrive thanks to the services that their local public schools provide. But some of them need alternatives, e.g., to be able to seek out help from another school district, a private school, a tutoring company, speech therapist or other professional. State-funded scholarship programs in Arizona, Florida, Georgia and Utah serve students with any number of disabilities, including autism. Florida\’s McKay scholarship program is the oldest, having been around since 2001. Today it helps close to 20,000 students. Parents love the program, sayting that it means their children are more likely to receive services thy need and face fewer social problems. Utah has the Carson Smith Scholarship program for special needs students. The Legislative Auditor General found that even parents who decided to return their children to their local district believe that the program is worthwhile.
Ohio takes a different approach. SInce 2004 it has funded a program specifically for students with autism. Last school year, roughly 150 service providers and 750 students participated. So the Kinzer-Kiegerl proposal is not radical, but follows in the wake of well-respected predecessors. Still, opponents of such programs say that at best, they are half-measures that neglect the bulk of students. True enough; they are intentionally limited. Then again, these students need more help than most, so why not give it to them?
As a subcategory of special needs students, autistic students already have rights specified under a federal law known as IDEA. Schools are required to create an Individual Education Plan, or IEP, for such students. The Kinzer-Kiegerl bill would use district-devised IEPs as the baseline for estimating scholarship granted by the state board of education, which parents could use at a private or public school. Who could be opposed to helping kids with autism? The Kansas National Education Association says the plan would drain money from public schools. I might ask, “Who\’s more important: the child in need, or the system?\”
Happily, we don\’t even have to choose. Susan Aud, a professor at Johns Hopkins University, looked at the Ohio program. She estimated it saved Ohio $1 million in just two years. So much for draining the system. If they wish, legislators could always reinvest that money elsewhere in education.
Rep. Judith Loganbill, a Wiohita Democrat, has expressed concern about which services families will be able to use. She says that the bill doesn’t define \”nonpublic school.\” Does this mean that parents will be able to claim a check from the slate, enroll their non-autistic children in a phony school and then spend the money in a casino? Hardly. School districts will still be involved in identifying who is autistic and who is not. And under the proposal, the state board of education would determine the \”requirements relating to the eligibility and participation of non·public schools.\”
So there are details to be worked. out: But if anyone is concerned about the future of an autistic child; it\’s his or her parents. A scholarship program for children with autism could save taxpayer money and more importantly, let families customize an education plan for these extraordinary students.
John R. LaPlante is an Education Policy fellow with the Kansas-based Flint Hills Center for Public Policy. To learn more about the Flint Hills Center, visit www.flinthills.org