Thursday, March 27, 2008

Bryce's Law WILL make a difference

Dwight Scharnhorst talks about one of the best reasons to support Bryce’s Law—mainstreaming special needs and autistic children back into public schools through the great and strident benefits of early detection.

When it comes to autism, the window of opportunity to change their prognosis happens very early on in their development and without early intervention the possibilities of overcoming obstacles decreases year by year: it is very much a race against time.

The results of early intervention are obvious to parents and those who work closely with autism in a school or medical setting.

Laurie Stephens, Ph.D., has some points in EARLY INTERVENTION IN AUTISM: Forging the Architecture for Change that deal with best practices for early intervention. She says that between 25 and 50% of recipients of early intervention will move into mainstream education and many more will need significantly fewer services in the future.

She notes that the most notable factor of the effectiveness of a program is the intensity, in areas such as duration, individualization of the plan, and parental involvement. A teacher-student ratio of 3:1 is preferable, and she stresses that the child not be made to fit the program, but instead the program must be made to fit the child.

The results of this format were:

-Over 80% of students met annual IEP goals
-In 2005; 50% of graduates entered a district based Kindergarten program
-20% entered special ed. programs for children of average to borderline intelligence
-7of 10 non-verbal students acquired at least 3 functional words within 9 months

Missouri families need the ability to seek out this kind of help—and they are able to with the choices available to them before Kindergarten for early intervention. But once they enter mainstream public education, that choice goes away. Someone obviously thought giving parents the leverage to find a program that offers that low teacher-students ratio and is catered specifically to their child, and if it helps children at 6 years it can help at seven, eight, and on up.

A study of Texas estimates that the state could save over 2 billion dollars in autism education by shifting their budget towards some highly intensive, highly successful early intervention programs. So we have testimony from doctors, parents and teachers that early intervention makes a world of difference. We have very encouraging results and the fiscal benefit of a net decrease in services needed. We have individual children who have been able to move beyond their disorder. Let’s make Bryce’s law a priority, because we will see a difference.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Building on school choice

Some excerpts from Ohio show how school choice is benefiting all students:

In the past three years, more than 1,000 families throughout Youngstown, Ohio have taken advantage of the state's open-enrollment law, charter schools, and new statewide voucher program for students in chronically failing schools. Experts say students' increasing academic success there demonstrates the benefits of choice.

Chad Aldis, executive director of School Choice Ohio (SCO), said that's what happens when parents get involved.

"Being able to choose school placement creates parent involvement," Aldis said. "That is one of the leading indicators of the success of students."

The EdChoice Scholarship, now in its third year, allowed approximately 7,000 students to choose a better educational environment during the 2007-08 school year, up from 3,000 students in 2006-07.

"I agree with Gov. [Ted] Strickland's statement in the 2007 State of the State address," Aldis said. "[He said] 'Where you grow up in Ohio should not determine where you end up in life.' The EdChoice Scholarship is an important tool in preventing this inequality by giving children in failing schools a path to a better education."

Across the country there is an obvious groundswell of support and appreciation for school choice and the range of benefits it offers. Parents are no longer happy to just wait for their schools to offer what they need, and policy-shapers have recognized that this is an important way to improve education across the board without the waiting game that happens when implementing large scale public school initiatives.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Tax Credit of the week

Governor Matt Blunt touts the Missouri ETV program.

The Missouri Education and Training Voucher Program offers funds to foster youth and former foster youth to enable them to attend colleges, universities and vocational training institutions. Students may receive up to $5000 a year as they pursue higher education. The funds may be used for tuition, books or qualified living expenses. These funds are available on a first-come, first-served basis to students out of the Missouri foster care system.

With other programs across the state like this, it is a wonder that more Missourians don’t understand why we need assistance for special needs families offered by HB 1886. We recognize that there are children who need more than they can afford. Missouri is turning a blind eye to the fact that families with special needs children need help and need choices as well if they are going to reach their true potential (something no amount of pragmatic norms should deny them).

I ran across KOMU’s “Combating Autism from Within” blog by Ashley Reynolds. Many of the parents commenting had more than one autistic child.

The American Institute of Research estimates the annual cost to educate an autistic child in public school is between $15,900 and $21,700. That is in line with a National Education Association estimate of $16,900 for special education. That amount doesn’t even touch healthcare costs, diagnosis or intensive treatment and therapy that often involves some of the most expensive and state of the art equipment and/or one-on-one therapies and exercises.

The monetary cost, in turn, doesn’t begin to touch the cost to the physical and emotional resources of parents, and the daily struggle they face meeting their child’s needs: from getting them to eat, to keeping them safe to finding the appropriate education and therapy and getting the right diagnosis, IEP, teacher, tutor, playgroup, medication. The need is there. Ideas about ways to help exist and have been tested, both in other states and for other high-need groups in Missouri. “How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.” ~Anne Frank

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Why make it harder for special needs children?

It is hard to believe that some journalists would publish things that were not true. It is hard to understand why they would print something that could hurt our children. It seems to me that the authors of such articles against the special needs legislation are being swayed by superintendents or teachers' unions. Then I try to understand why they are trying to prevent this legislation from passing. Their arguments have nothing to stand on. They say it will take money away from the public schools, NO it will not! The problem is that when people hear that, they start to believe it. The money used for the scholarships will come from private donors, not money allocated for the schools. Some may say it is unconstitutional, but it is not. Testimony during the hearings in February proved it is not.

They say the private schools are not regulated like the public schools, but no one is forcing any child to enter into the schools or use the scholarships. The parents can make that decision, not the government.

I am a parent of a special needs child. I know parents like myself would really benefit from a program like this. It is extremely expensive to attend the private schools and even more expensive to attend the special schools. I am aware that some public schools do a great job of educating their special needs students, but not every public school does it well. We need to be looking out for those students...ones who are not getting what they need.

This scholarship tax credit program for special needs will allow the children to attend a public school in another district or use the money for an approved private school. Repeat: approved private school...not just any school will be allowed, meaning unstable, unreliable or unhealthy schools will not make the cut. This is another one of those false accusations floating around. Opponents say that the scholarships could be used at any private school, which could be a horrible school. Some people are even saying that if this passes, then it will allow the state to control the private schools...again, NOT TRUE!

Here is my point, all of the arguments I have heard are not accurate. The opponents are spreading false accusations which will only hurt the children of Missouri. We need to get the truth out there and encourage support for this legislation! The children need this support; their parents need this support.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Post-Dispatch letters dismiss concerns of parents

It was sad to see the letters in today’s Post-Dispatch criticizing parents of special needs children for not doing enough, and misconstruing the effects of a bill that would benefit Missouri’s special needs students. I don’t know if they were sent out of fear or ignorance, but I hope the Post-Dispatch gives parents a chance to respond.

One letter was from Kenneth Eigenberg, the Secretary of the Special School District Board of Education, which advocates against choices for special needs parents. The Post-Dispatch already aired their complaints last week, and this looks like much of the same political rhetoric.

I’ll touch on some points:

First, Eigenberg says “Legislation creating tuition tax credits or vouchers — in particular Senate Bill 993 and House Bill 1886 — potentially harms special education students, removes public oversight and protections and detracts from other programs that could better serve student needs. The proposed legislation lacks accountability needed to protect vulnerable children and to ensure public-supported funds are well spent. Investigating a similar model program in Florida, the Palm Beach Post reported that ‘77 percent of participating schools have no special programs for disabled children.’”

Once again, the Post-Dispatch allows a tuition tax credit to be called a voucher, when in reality they are quite different. Secondly, the funds are not publicly supported, because they are not vouchers: the fund would be from donations, and those donors would receive a tax credit for 80% of their donation. Schools would be accountable to parents through regular reporting and would be subject to non-discrimination and various other financial and achievement benchmarks which, if not met, would keep a school from being eligible to receive scholarships from this program. Furthermore, it allows the amount spent on a special needs child to be used at the best school for their disability, which can make a huge difference in a child’s life, as Patrice Cahalan would tell you.

Florida’s Program tells a much different story than presented here. The McKay scholarship tax credit has grown leaps and bound in both funding and enrollment. This type of program even helps children who want to attend a public school outside of their residential district by assists families by not forcing them to move in order to get a certain program. There is an overwhelming level of satisfaction from parents with new schools as compared with the previous assigned public school, which suggests that parents were by far happier with their child’s success at the school they chose even if it wasn’t created for disabled students—an interesting thought to consider.

To sweep up the few remaining points, we use tax credits all the time—they are not new. We use them for almost every public good BUT K-12 education. Eigenberg is wrong to say that tax credits cost revenue—they are revenue neutral, and Florida has actually seen a budget savings of $113 million from their McKay scholarships.

I believe that the Special School District offers parents in the area a much-needed choice, and serves them well. But offering more choices for parents can only ensure that every child is getting the best education available, and that should be at the core of the SSD’s values and advocacy.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Missouri: No more lost potential

Alexa Cahalan did not fit in to any of the schools publicly available to her. This video illustrates why Bryce’s Law and SB 993 are so needed in Missouri. To require families with special needs children to move in order to get the right environment they need to succeed is absurd and antiquated. Then, consider situations like Alexa’s where moving actually hurts their condition (this is especially true with Autism Spectrum Disorder)—what could be simpler than allowing them to go to the best school, regardless of where they live? What could be simpler than offering a scholarship to a family who has the added responsibility of achieving an appropriate education for their child?

For all of the detractors out there that say offering a tax credit for this public good will cost too much or isn’t worth it, consider that there are 130,000 other IEP students in Missouri just like Alexa who can thrive if they are matched with the right school. Senator Crowell is right about the potential that in so many cases gets locked away during critical years of development—we need that. We can talk about the potential burden (other states have actually saved money through scholarship programs like this) or we can talk about the potential good. I think when talking about a child’s future, all other concerns need to fall by the wayside: I’m sure that’s how Missouri’s parents of special needs children feel.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Learning from Parents

Jason Grill has done some notable work in the Missouri House this year on the education front. He’s working on “Missouri Books from Birth” in which DESE would work with a non-profit provider to make sure all children are receiving books before they enter Kindergarten. He’s attached a proposal for tax credits for stay-at-home parents, which I think is a great idea. There are very few benefits in the workplace for parents who stay at home with a young child, and more and more it seems that families need a dual income to make ends meet.

Here is a link about a Family University day Grill participated in to talk about some issues common to many parents in the Parkville area, like bullying, substance abuse, diversity and autism and behavioral disorders. He’s visited students at local libraries and the Developmental Disabilities Council, and hosted Parkville students at the state Capitol.

I find this kind of information very useful as a voter—I am delighted to see Representatives doing more in their communities than just talking about what they want to see happen. When a legislator can not only shape policy but engage students and communities in learning and being involved with the process, we are very lucky. I hope that Rep. Grill has gotten a chance to talk to the community about the current special needs legislation, HB 1886. This is very important for special needs parents to be able to get the best education for their child, and I think that Rep. Grill’s record shows that children with special needs are more important than special interests.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Carry on the tradition

I have been impressed with the support that Representative Jason Browne has given many important bills in our state: bills providing tax credits for cervical cancer prevention, higher education standards for early childhood schools, and countless others. I hope he continues this tradition by supporting House Bill 1886.
HB 1886 provides help for families with special needs children. Kids that are diagnosed with conditions such as Asperger’s, or Autism, learn differently than the average number of children. There are many centers and schools that offer services more tailored to their needs, only sometimes the expense is too great for the child’s family. HB 1886 creates scholarship money for these kids and families. Citizens would be able to donate and receive a tax credit, like that for cervical cancer.
Carry on your tradition of good service, Rep. Browne, and vote YES for HB 1886.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Shifting the burden—Will Charlie Shields help families this year?

I was reading an article about tuition assistance for Veterans. Rep. Charlie Shields was talking adamantly about the burden falling back to the students or the University, and that the state should take a more active role in shouldering that burden.

It’s contentious, of course—everyone wants to assist veterans in college, because we owe them honor for their service, but a good-intentioned program could have unintended consequences if the burden was shifted back to students some other way.

It struck me that I haven’t seen him come out vocally for the education of special needs children in the same way. Rep. Shields has an opportunity to support HB 1886 which would help families of special needs students (another group of students Missourians feel an especially intense responsibility for) pay for the cost of private tuition when they are unable to succeed in a tradition public school setting. This bill provides a tax credit for charitable donations up to 80% to a scholarship fund for special needs students. In many cases, students with learning disabilities simply need a period of education specific to their difficulty which they may not find in their district’s public school, and are eventually able to catch up to classmates and join mainstream public education.

Not offering another option for these families means that children will be left behind their classmates and kept at arms length from the chance to move past a disability and succeed.

Rep. Shields from St. Joseph has a record of speaking out for children and students, from early childhood education to college, and helping to widen options for anyone who can’t afford it. What about out special needs students? This is one step the state can take for learning disabled, developmentally disabled and Autistic children across the state that helps them get the services they need without leaving a family stranded and strapped financially.

Donnelly: will she break rank for special needs children?

Gone Mild has an unusually tough attack on Margaret Donnelly. Most of the reports I’ve seen have given her a downy dusting of approval, but it could just be the residual effect of constantly standing so close to Jeff Harris.

“When asked how she intends to appeal to outstate voters, Donnelly had no real answer. She claimed that her legislative record regarding Medicaid would somehow help her win voters, but was unable to articulate why she thought that would be a major issue for the Attorney General's race, against a candidate who will undoubtedly be smart enough to voice support for health care.

Margaret Donnelly seems like a fantastically dedicated and fine Democrat. She is not, however, a particularly good candidate for Attorney General. She has no relevant experience, and she does not project the toughness and solidity Missourians want to see in their chief law enforcement officer. She seems to think that Clayton is mid-Missouri.”

In my playbook, she hasn’t made a distinctive play at all. She seems quite nice, but unwilling to rock the boat in any way. She hides in Jeff Harris’ shadow without making any distinctive statement, and it looks like her motto is “what would the democrats do?” That kind of single-mindedness is not a good quality for an attorney general, and I’d like to see her break out of that shell.

She’s been echoing Harris’ attack on Chris Koster and towing the line on school choice, but in this cycle, that position would have her voting against a tuition tax credit bill in the House, 1886, that would provide much-needed assistance to families with developmentally disabled children. While this mirrors Harris to a T, it seem like something she could have made a statement by voting for it and distinguishing herself as the candidate who puts kids first.

She may be historically the first woman to run for Attorney General, but she’s not bringing anything new to the table that appeals to me.