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The 4-year-old voucher program in Ohio that gives parents of children with autism up to $20,000 to shop around for educational services is often used in schools that do not accept students with severe needs, by agencies that do not offer a school setting, and by residents of relatively affluent areas, according to an analysis by a public-policy group.
Policy Matters Ohio’s review of the program concludes that the Autism Scholarship Program is a poor model for other states, as well as a bad foundation on which to build a broader disability voucher program, said the report’s author, Piet van Lier. The Cleveland-based policy group suggests that the money would be better spent on strengthening services for all students.
During the 2006-07 school year, 734 children used the program, at a cost to the state of about $10.8 million.
“There’s no question that not many school districts are up on” the best ways to educate children with autism, Mr. van Lier said. The report, released March 19, does point to a partnership of three school districts, a college, and a state agency in a rural section of Ohio as an example of how districts can improve their professional capacity to educate students with autism.
“We just think there should be some oversight to make sure these dollars are well-spent,” he said.
Those who run the voucher program at the state level say it was created expressly to have few bureaucratic barriers between parents and the money. The state ensures that providers have been in business for at least one year, and that people who work directly with children have criminal-background checks. The state-approved providers submit claims for reimbursement from the program.
All the children in the program must have an individualized education program, or IEP, from their home districts, indicating that they have a disability on the autism spectrum. Autism spectrum disorders are characterized by impairments in communication, repetitive behavior, and social withdrawal.
“A lot of our oversight is paperwork,” said Paul Sogan, one of two educational consultants with the Ohio Department of Education’s office of exceptional children who oversee the program. Parents are free to shop around and “vote with their feet,” he said.
And parents whose children are in the program say that without the vouchers, they would not have been able to create appropriate educational programs for their children.
“I think this is a great model,” said Lori Peacock, whose 12-year-old son receives help from an array of instructional aides paid by state funds to supplement home schooling. She felt that her home district in Columbus did not offer the structure her child needed to succeed.
The number of K-12 students in Ohio schools with an individualized education program that includes autism has increased dramatically in the past decade. Figures include students in charter schools.
Source: Ohio Department of Education
“I’ve been in touch with parents in other states who are desperate for something like this,” Ms. Peacock said.
Erica Thomas, who also lives in Columbus, is not using the voucher for her 7-year-old son, but she has in previous years.
“So many of our kids were getting lousy services and just falling through the cracks,” she said. She believes that the voucher program, however, has prompted her home district to improve the services it offers. “They started seeing this as something they needed to compete against,” Ms. Thomas said.
Policy Matters Ohio is the only group so far to take an in-depth look at the program, state officials said.
The Ohio office of legislative oversight examined the program in its first year, but there were few children enrolled, and it was more of an examination of implementation issues, Mr. van Lier said. The office of legislative oversight is now defunct, he said, and “we felt it was time to look at this again.”
Under the program, the family of a 3- to 21-year-old with a diagnosis of autism is eligible for a voucher. In return, the family waives the guarantee of a free, appropriate public education from the local school district, a foundation of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
School district staff members are responsible, though, for interacting with private providers in each jurisdiction to write a student’s IEP. The IEPs are not reviewed by the state; it is the parents’ responsibility to make sure the program is implemented properly.
Policy Matters Ohio found what it describes as geographic and wealth inequities in the program. Students who participate tend to be clustered in suburban areas, the analysis says, and most of the approved providers are also located in those areas.
Many of the schools that are approved providers are religious schools, but some approved providers are tutoring and therapy programs that are not comparable to classroom programs, the group found. Further, a few schools charged $20,000 for students with autism, while charging a lower tuition rate to students without disabilities.
The analysis reviewed all 127 providers that submitted claims for the first quarter of fiscal 2008, 40 of which offered a classroom setting. Only 15 of the 40 had a school-like setting for children with the most severe needs.
The financial impact to districts from the voucher program is unclear, the report notes. Ohio’s complex student-funding formula means that while some districts may lose some state money under the program, other districts may end up retaining some state aid for a student, even if the student is a voucher recipient. Federal funding for special education is unaffected by the program.
The review also includes responses from 21 families who participate in the program, reporting uniform support for it.
Their sentiments reflect the experience of Barbara Yavorcik, the co-president of the Autism Society of Ohio. The society has no position on the voucher program, but Ms. Yavorcik said she knows that parents are pleased with it. She said she would have liked to see the report from the policy group dive into why parents who use the program like it so much, and what public schools can learn from such responses to improve their own programs.
“Our position is that parents need choice, and choice is good,” Ms. Yavorcik said. “But we also need to find a way to strengthen public schools.”