Parents plead for voucher for disabled students

Thursday, February 14, 2008

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Nikki Harper moved across Columbia so her autistic son could go to a different public elementary school. Shari Kaminsky is paying $32,000 a year to send her autistic son to a private school because she believes a suburban St. Louis public school failed to help him.

Harper, Kaminsky and other parents of developmentally disabled children pleaded with lawmakers Wednesday to approve a voucher or tax credit program that would let them send their children to the public or private school of their choice.

"We shouldn't have to move and rearrange our entire lives to get the best for our kids," Harper told members of the Senate Pensions, Veterans' Affairs and General Laws Committee.

But various public school officials warned the proposals would drain money from their districts, leaving fewer resources to teach the students who remain. They also questioned whether private schools could provide the same quality or accountability as public schools.

School choice advocates have been battling unsuccessfully for several years to allow certain Missouri students to transfer from public schools to private ones at taxpayer expense.

Last year, the House defeated a bill that would have provided $40 million a year in state tax credits so lower-income families in St. Louis and Kansas City could send their children to other public or private schools. The tax credits would have been awarded for donations to charities, which in turn would have offered the scholarships.

A pair of bills pending in the Senate and House this year would use a similar model for special-needs students statewide. An alternative Senate bill would provide direct state vouchers, instead of the indirect tax breaks, for the parents of public school students with disabilities.

Kaminsky, the mother of two autistic sons, said her 15-year-old has done well in public school, but her 12-year-old didn't learn to read or speak in sentences until she enrolled him in the private Giant Steps school in St. Louis.

"His progress during elementary school was a flat line," she told senators. "At Giant Steps he's making progress, and it's consistent, and he's happy. He's no longer tearing up his clothing."

The sponsor of one of the bills, Sen. Jason Crowell, sought to put a personal face on the legislation by explaining that he had dyslexia as a child and advanced through school only because his mother was a teacher for children with disabilities.

"This bill, although it boils down to a turf battle, is really about helping individuals who don't find themselves with the mother I had, or a father or mother with the wealth to purchase access to special help," said Crowell, R-Cape Girardeau.

Among those opposing the bill was Sheryl Davenport, who works in early childhood special education for St. Louis public schools. She said her 4-year-old granddaughter also has autism.

"To pass this bill will continue to compound this problem," Davenport said, "because as money is diverted from our schools, that means that the services we could have provided, also went with that child."

Sen. Scott Rupp, R-Wentzville, the sponsor of the voucher bill, said 52,365 public school students would be eligible for state aid under his proposal. But under a similar program in Florida, only about 4.5 percent of the eligible students actually used the program, he said.

"The fears that it's the camel's nose under the tent (for) a mass exodus from our public schools is not founded," Rupp said.

Former state Board of Education member Tom Davis, who also has a grandson with autism, told senators that state aid allowing parents to transfer their children elsewhere may not be the best way to help children. The main problem is that there aren't enough schools focusing on autistic students, he said.

"In some respects, you're giving authority to parents to go to alternative places that currently don't exist," Davis said. "There is such a limited supply of credible therapies and schools that can provide these services adequately."

He suggested lawmakers should provide state aid for public school districts to form consortium schools focusing on special-needs students.

Special needs bills are SB770, SB993, HB1886.

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