Autism and the economic incentives for education choice

Scott Kent

States that lead in providing varied choices to families with autism aren’t just doing the righteous thing. They also are making themselves a more desirable place in which to live and invest.

Anyone associated with the pursuit of “economic development” will tell you that the quality of local schools is a key factor in a community’s ability to attract high-paying jobs. Businesses are better able to recruit and retain employees if their children have access to a good education.

Academics are just one element in assessing schools. The availability of student services increasingly is a key consideration for families – especially with regard to autism.

 According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, autism is the fastest-growing development disability in the nation. The prevalence of autism in U.S. children jumped from 1 in 150 in 2000 to 1 in 59 in 2014. The reasons for that surge are the subject of much debate. It may be due to better diagnosis, increased awareness, and broader definitions of autism; the spectrum of disorders has expanded to include a wider range of language abilities and social behaviors.

Regardless of the causes, schools and communities are struggling to keep up with the increasing demand for autism services – and not just because they have a moral duty to do so. They also have a legal obligation. The federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), first enacted in 1975, mandates that public school students with intellectual disabilities, including autism, are entitled to early intervention services and special education.

Alas, compliance with IDEA — by districts and by entire states – has been uneven, to say the least. The Houston Chronicle in its 2016 investigative series “Denied” reported how Texas officials arbitrarily decided what percentage of students should get special education services, leaving thousands of children searching for assistance.

Parents need alternatives outside a system that not only may not be working for them, it may be working against them.

There is another incentive that cannot be ignored: Being an autism-friendly community can have economic benefits.

Research has found a correlation between autism and affluence — upper-income parents are more likely to have children with autism. Again, the causes are uncertain. Perhaps it’s because parents with higher educations and higher-paying jobs have more resources than their less-educated and less-affluent counterparts to seek diagnoses and services for their autistic children. Nevertheless, many childhood developmental disabilities have an inverse relationship with socio-economic status – the poorer the family, the more likely a child is to have a developmental issue. Autism, however, appears to be the opposite effect.

A 2010 University of Wisconsin-Madison study found that affluent children were almost twice as likely as the poorest children to have autism. Poor neighborhoods did have lower rates of diagnosis. But even among children with no autism diagnosis, the richest children displayed signs of autism 39 percent more often than those in the poorest neighborhoods. This was true within all ethnic groups: Wealthier African-American or Hispanic parents were more likely to have autistic children compared to poorer people of the same ethnicity.

Is it because of lifestyle or other environmental factors? Or are certain traits of successful people – especially those involved in such fields as engineering and the sciences – passed on to their offspring?  The search for answers continues.

Whatever the reasons, the statistical reality is that educated, affluent parents are more likely to have children with autism, and thus will seek to live and work where they have access to quality services. Communities have an obligation to provide such services to all regardless of socio-economic background, but the demographics of autism indicate there is a positive externality to adopting such policies: an influx of the kinds of educated residents and high-wage employers that areas compete with each other to attract.

A 2011 online survey by Autism Speaks found that nearly 75 percent of respondents were not satisfied with their community’s resources and services for people with autism. Among those who said they are generally pleased with the availability of services and resources where they live, many cited satisfaction with the educational services their child receives.

It costs more than $8,600 extra per year to educate a student with autism. Federal grants can help defray costs, but they don’t cover everything.

Education choice can play an important role in bridging that gap and providing families more options.

Florida has two education programs that assist parents of children with special needs, including autism. The McKay Scholarship was the nation’s first such voucher program, providing eligible students the opportunity to attend a private school or transfer to another public school.  It currently serves 31,000 students. The Gardiner Scholarship is an education savings account (ESA) that goes further by allowing parents to spend funds on a combination of programs – not just schools (including home schools), but also tutoring, specialists, curriculum and technology. It serves more than 11,000, making it the nation’s largest ESA.

Several states, including Arizona, Mississippi and Tennessee, have adopted either vouchers or ESAs for special-needs students. In 2004, Ohio launched the nation’s first and only private school voucher program exclusively for students with autism. Unfortunately, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe in 2016 vetoed a bill that would have created an ESA for students with disabilities.

ESAs offer families the most freedom.  Parents can choose where to spend the money, specifically tailoring schooling and services to meet their children’s individual needs. That empowerment can also incentivize providers to offer a wider array of services, and at lower cost.

As the autism spectrum expands to include more diverse behaviors, it’s vital that students have as many education preferences as possible to find the best fit. That could be a traditional classroom setting, a charter or private school that specializes in autism, a homeschool network of parents of children with autism, or even a combination of those. Indeed, it’s unrealistic to expect all the possibilities to fit under one roof, within one paradigm.

States that lead in providing varied choices to families with autism aren’t just doing the righteous thing. They also are making themselves a more desirable place in which to live and invest. Ultimately, that will boost the quality of life for all.

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