Wisconsin Considering School Choice for Parents of Autistic Children

Published February 1, 2006

A scholarship program in Wisconsin would allow the parents of children with autism to choose the school best suited to their children’s needs and could help pave the way for school choice options for others.

On December 14, 2005, the Wisconsin State Assembly voted 62-33 in favor of a program that would provide school vouchers for 200 children with autism. The scholarships would allow them to attend private schools or treatment programs chosen by their parents. At press time, the bill was headed to the Senate education committee, and no date had been set for a hearing.

Autism, a developmental disability stemming from a neurological disorder in the brain, impairs a child’s ability to communicate. Children with autism experience impairment in social interaction. They may resist any changes in the daily routine, avoid making eye contact, and have unexplainable tantrums. Other disorders, such as mental retardation, often accompany a diagnosis of autism.

Empowering Parents

Clint Bolick, president and general counsel for the Alliance for School Choice, an advocacy organization based in Phoenix, said such a scholarship program for developmentally disabled students would allow parents, rather than the state, to make decisions about the most appropriate educational placement for autistic children.

“Basically, it gives the [parents of an autistic] child the chance to choose not to accept the services available in the public school and instead [send their child] at public expense to a private school that the parent has deemed more appropriate,” Bolick said. “So it is a straight school choice program.”

Many parents of children with autism have experienced frustration with the services provided by public schools, prompting great interest in the school choice movement, Bolick said.

Meeting Needs

Royce Van Tassell, executive director of Education Excellence Utah, another school choice advocacy group, said the public education system is designed to meet the needs of the majority of kids.

“The system that is designed for the many doesn’t always meet the needs of the one,” Van Tassell observed. “Especially when those education needs are unique, as are many of the children who have special education. They have very specific services that can’t be met in a traditional public school. Or perhaps they can be met better in a different environment.”

The Wisconsin bill (A.B. 700), sponsored by Rep. Kitty Rhoades (R-Hudson), was modeled after a similar program in Ohio, the Autism Scholarship Program.

“Ohio was the first state to pass a school choice program for children with autism,” Bolick said. “And now the Ohio program this year may be expanded to encompass all children with disabilities.”

Last year, Utah passed a limited school choice program for developmentally disabled students, called the Carson Smith Scholarship. Florida enacted a similar program in 1999, called the McKay Scholarships for Students with Disabilities Program, then expanded it statewide in the 2000-01 school year. That program, however, could be challenged in court later this year by the National Education Association after the Florida Supreme Court ruled vouchers unconstitutional January 5. (See “Florida Voucher Ruling Puts Programs at Risk,” page 6.)

Easing Burdens

Van Tassell said any child who qualifies for special education services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act is eligible for a Carson Smith scholarship.

“I’ve talked to families who say that they are discovering their children,” Van Tassell said. “They hadn’t been able to get the services that their children needed. They have now been able to go out and find schools that meet the needs of those children.”

For some families, Van Tassell explained, the financial burden of paying tuition can mean working two jobs or being forced to put a child back into a public school where his needs aren’t necessarily met.

“With the scholarship, they don’t have to have a mom taking another job; she can spend time at home caring for all the family’s children,” Van Tassell said. “In this way the scholarship has been a blessing for the entire family.”

Benefiting Children

Expanding Ohio’s program would be another step toward recognizing school choice benefits all children, Bolick said.

“In our view, once the principle is established that children who have special needs should have more options, all we have to do is to show how many children have special needs,” Bolick said. “Hopefully we get to the point where public policy recognizes that every child is an individual and has special needs.”

Wendy Cloyd ([email protected]) is a freelance writer in Colorado Springs, Colorado.