Missouri has a new law to foster scholarships for families with autistic children that get them services from private facilities or public schools outside their district.
An early version of the bill called “Bryce’s Law” would have given tax credits to let parents choose where to spend their own education dollars. The version of Senate Bill 17 Gov. Jay Nixon (D) signed provides for the state to distribute only private and federal grants.
Bill sponsor Rep. Dwight Scharnhorst (R-Manchester) said the bill had to be altered during the legislative process to use federal grants instead of letting parents use their own money, as with a true school choice program: “It will still be tax money. It’s not a tax credit for a state tax, but it is a grant, which is funded by federal tax. That grant money comes from somewhere.”
“Bryce’s Law was originally supposed to be a tax-credit like scholarship program,” said James Shuls, a Show-Me Institute education analyst, “A form of Bryce’s Law was inserted into SB 17. SB17 requires the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) to seek out donations and grants to fund scholarships for students with special needs,” continued Shuls. “There is no tax credit for these donations. This is not a tax-credit scholarship program and should not be considered an expansion of school choice.”
Ten states currently offer children with special needs some variety of school choice, either through vouchers or tax-credit scholarships, which are funded by tax-deductible donations to K-12 scholarship funds.
Deciding How to Implement
DESE is still deciding how to implement the program, said spokeswoman Sarah Potter.
“I’ve mandated DESE to secure federal grant money,” said Scharnhorst. “I’m going to try to augment that federal grant money with private foundation money if possible. I’m meeting with DESE next week to try to start down the road to try to find out what we’re going to do there.”
Scharnhorst said he would meet with DESE staff to discuss implementation, including any amendatory legislative language needed.
“Students with the medical conditions described in the statute would automatically qualify for First Steps services,” Potter said. First Steps is Missouri’s system of government services for children with disabilities or developmental delays from birth to age three.
“If they’re diagnosed early” results are often very good, said Scharnhorst, “which is why my bill was taken down to the age of zero. Previously, it had always been from school age on up — five year olds. If you get a diagnosis early and get treatment early you can have an effect on the quality of life for these young people.”
If early diagnosis is made and treatment applied, Scharnhorst said, 60 percent of autistic children can be mainstreamed, which means they can participate in a regular classroom rather than in special education classes. Even children with severe disabilities typically do better when their condition is diagnosed early, he said.
Image by Shannon Des Roches Rosa.