Two fast moving trains seem to be on a collision course and neither train is showing signs of slowing down. A recent study released by the medical journal Pediatrics shows that diagnosis of autism has increased from 1 in 150 children to 1 in 91 children. This number means about 1% of children born are affect with autism spectrum disorder.
At the same time school districts are scrambling to deal with decreased funding as the economic recession has led to declining tax revenue. St. Louis Public Schools (SLPS) recently cutting nursing staff in their district is just one of many recent examples of schools cutting back to close budget deficits. SLPS is dealing with a deficit of $53 million.
The reality that children with autism, and other special needs, are increasing at an alarming rate and schools are receiving less funds leads to this question: How will these special needs students receive an appropriate education? In Missouri, legislators are having trouble funding existing programs, like Career Ladder which gives teachers additional pay for performing extra tutoring and other functions, and are warning of more cuts to come. In addition Missouri, according to the recommendation of the state’s education commissioner, is not applying for the first half of the Race to the Top federal competitive grant program.
One way forward in funding of special needs education is to incentivize the private charity of businesses and individuals to get involved. One way other states have done this is by allowing scholarship tax credit programs. In these programs individuals or corporation are given tax credits for donating to an approved scholarship program. These scholarships are awarded to individuals and used at the school of their choice or to receive additional specialized education in addition to the school they are currently attending. Several states including Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Ohio and Utah have scholarship tax credit programs targeted at students with special needs. A recent study of Florida’s program has concluded that the program is helping to better diagnosis students with special needs.
As the number of special needs students increases we must turn to new methods of funding to provide the best chance for these students to receive an appropriate education, leading them to become productive members of our society. Government entities, both state and local, are not going to be able to keep up with the increased demand for funding that these students will require. Reform minded methods, like scholarship tax credit programs, are going to be the only way to see that these children are not left behind.