State program created for special needs students has failed to help a single one

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In 2013, lawmakers created a way to help kids with autism and other conditions who need special education: a fund meant to help them go to private schools that were well-equipped to meet their needs.

It never got off the ground.

Now, a new effort is underway to revamp the program, but even if it's successful, many Missouri residents will likely be left out.

The 2013 law was passed to assist students with autism, Down syndrome, dyslexia and Angelman syndrome by providing an alternative to public education. The state would grant scholarships to attend private institutions that specialize in educating such children. The funds would come from contributions made in exchange for tax credits.

The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education said in an email that after four years, the effort had failed. Not a single child applied for the scholarship nor were any funds donated to pay for them.

Former state Rep. Dwight Scharnhorst first introduced the bill when he was elected in 2006. In July 2013, a version of it finally passed and was signed into law by Gov. Jay Nixon.

Scharnhorst's grandson, Bryce, was diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum and died from a seizure at age 6. Because of Bryce's experience as a young student, Scharnhorst said he understands the high cost of providing for kids with special needs.

"Now, you present that to the average parent, there is no way in the world they can pay $125 an hour for a care specialist. In the current economic climate, it's just nearly impossible,” Scharnhorst said. “Missouri promises every student a free public education."

Program fails

But the program created by what came to be known as Bryce's Law hasn't provided the help that Scharnhorst and other lawmakers had hoped. Now, it faces a sunset provision that takes effect in January 2020. A sunset clause provides that a law shall cease to be in effect on a specific date.

Scharnhorst believes the state education department didn't make the law a priority. "Unfortunately in my experience, DESE has paid very little attention" to securing grants, he said. He described a meeting about the program in which a DESE official kept silent and left quickly after it was over.

A report from the Show-Me Institute, which describes itself as think tank that promotes free markets and individual liberties, said that the law failed and that public funds dedicated to special-needs kids should directly fund private schools that have the resources to support them.

Susan Pendergrass, the institute's director of research and education policy, said more than 8,000 Missouri students ages 5-21 were eligible to receive these scholarships when the law passed.

Pendergrass said that it is often more challenging for parents with autism to find the best education for their child.

Solutions proposed

State Rep. Dan Stacy, R-Blue Springs, hopes to fix the program by amending the bill that created it.

One step involves recruiting the state treasurer's office to help assist with generating funds for the law.

Pendergrass said another proposed change could help because the current law only offers donors standard tax deductions, while the newly amended bill would give donors a 100 percent tax credit, raising the incentives.

Stacy believes that change is crucial.

"Giving donors a larger incentive to support this kind of endeavor, I believe it would create a larger funding pool for parents, empowering them to have a larger toolbox at their command,” he said.

Stacy said there are several institutions in the state that can work with these students, in cities including Columbia, St. Louis and Joplin.

Mike Ferguson, communications director for the Show-Me Institute, said Bryce's Law fits with the organization's priorities, including the idea that families should be able to choose the best school for their children. "Because, one, competition makes everyone better, and secondly, not every public school can be all things to every student and parents and meet their needs,” he said. #ac

The Show-Me Institute was founded by St. Louis billionaire Rex Sinquefield, who is a major campaign donor to elected officials. Since 2016, Stacy has received $5,700 from Grow Missouri, a political action committee that Sinquefield has funded, according to campaign finance reports.

Rural kids left out?

There are still problems that the program would have to overcome.

The current law requires a scholarship-granting organization, or SGO, selected by DESE and the state treasurer's office to help manage the program. But currently there are no such organizations that are filling that role.

Another obstacle is that there is a different resource pool for kids in suburban and urban areas versus rural ones. There are few private schools that specialize in working with these special-needs students that are located near rural communities.

"I don't think it makes sense to keep kids from accessing those programs, just because not everyone is within driving distance to one of them," Pendergrass said.

Pendergrass said that if scholarships become available to students in rural areas, there will be a growth of demand for services that could lead to more programs.

Scharnhorst said Bryce's Law is meant to address a shortcoming in the state's schools.

"Missouri is afflicted in a way that public education system could not address," he said. "So we're making a false promise to the people of Missouri, promising a free public education and not delivering.”

Supervising editor is Mark Horvit, horvitm@missouri.edu.

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