Ohio Autism Voucher Program Turns Five

Published November 1, 2008

At the end of the 2007-08 school year, Ohio’s autism voucher program completed its fifth year of delivering school choice for parents of autistic children. Since its inception, the program has grown significantly, and participating parents have expressed great satisfaction.

“The best evidence of how well this program has worked in Ohio over the last five years is its wild popularity with parents,” said state Rep. Jon Peterson (R-Delaware). “Parents are in the best position to make important decisions on behalf of their children, and the popularity of the program is best explained by parents seeing their children fulfill their potential for the first time when they receive appropriate services.”

When the program went into effect in early 2004, students were eligible only for the final quarter of the school year. During that time, 70 students signed up for the program.

According to data presented in a study released in March by Policy Matters Ohio, the program grew to 300 students in 2004-05. In 2005-06, 475 students participated—more than 50 percent growth from the previous year. In 2006-07, 734 students enrolled, and by 2007-08, more than 900 students were participating from pre-kindergarten through 12th grade.

Limited to Small Percentage

Despite this rapid growth, the program still enrolls only a small percentage of autistic students statewide.

According to the Ohio Department of Education, in 2003-04 public schools in the state enrolled approximately 5,000 students with Individualized Education Programs (IEPs)—legal documents developed for special-needs students—that included autism as a diagnosis. Just over 1 percent of the state’s students with autism participated in the scholarship program that year.

By 2006-07, more than 9,000 students statewide had IEPs indicating autism, and more than 8 percent of them participated in the voucher program that year. There has been exponential growth in the number of students diagnosed with autism since the department began collecting data on IEPs with autism in 1995.

Augmenting Practice

The federal Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA) requires public schools to provide appropriate services to children with disabilities, and the nature of what should be provided is indicated in an IEP. The Autism Scholarship Program builds on this practice and provides scholarships for students with IEPs.

According to the Ohio Department of Education, “Parents can only claim and receive payment for services specified on the child’s IEP” up to $20,000. The average cost of vouchers requested is about $15,000.

The services to students with autism can be provided by private schools that have operated for at least one year and are registered with the department.

Parents Like Program

“The Autism Scholarship Program has enjoyed tremendous parent satisfaction,” said Chad Aldis, executive director of School Choice Ohio, a group based in Columbus.

A March 2008 report written by Piet Van Lier for Policy Matters Ohio, a progressive think tank with offices in Cleveland and Columbus, included several criticisms of the program but acknowledged, “parents interviewed for this study … tended to express more satisfaction with services than did parents in district schools.”

Beth Lear, an education policy analyst with the Buckeye Institute, a policy organization based in Columbus, said in testimony to the Ohio Senate Education Committee last April that parental satisfaction “was the most important finding” that parents strongly supported the program.

The Autism Society of Ohio, an Akron-based organization, says on its Web site it is neutral on the program, but it reports, “the feedback received from families has largely been positive,” in part because it “enables families to have a choice of tailored programs outside of the public school setting for specialized services” and allows “families to seek private services that otherwise would not be able to afford it.”

Criticisms Debated

Van Lier’s 50-page critique of the program—the only lengthy study to date—argues it should be restructured because he says special-service providers can be unduly selective. Only 15 of 40 providers examined accepted students regardless of level of disability, according to the report. According to Van Lier, 14 of 40 charge fees greater than $20,000, discouraging lower-income parents from using the vouchers.

In addition, Van Lier says some providers’ religious commitments would discourage some parents from using the program, and most of the eligible providers are located in more heavily populated areas, making them inaccessible to parents in rural areas. He also said vouchers tend to be used by upper-middle-income parents.

In her April 8 testimony to the Senate Education Committee, Lear responded to such criticisms by noting special-service providers cannot necessarily offer all services to all parents, and that religious-based programs constitute only a small percentage of the total offered. No parent is forced to accept a religious program, she noted.

Lear also rejected claims the program is too slanted toward wealthier parents, citing data indicating the 10 school districts with the greatest per-pupil spending have seven times as many autistic children as the 10 poorest districts.

Lear said those who “benefit most tend to be lower-income, minority children and their families.”

Michael Coulter ([email protected]) writes from Pennsylvania.

For more information …

“Analyzing Autism Vouchers,” by Piet Van Lier, Policy Matters Ohio, March 2008: http://www.policymattersohio.org/AnalyzingAutismVouchers.htm