December 22, 2014

Sponsor discusses tax credit scholarship for children with autism, other disorders

A state legislator is trying for the sixth year to see legislation passed that he says could help many children like his late grandson.

Bryce’s law would create a tax credit scholarship to help the parents of children with an autism spectrum disorder, Down syndrome, Angelman syndrome or cerebral palsy get specialized educations that meet their unique needs. It is named for Bryce Scharnhorst, who died in 2007 from complications related to autism and epilepsy.

Representative Dwight Scharnhorst with a picture of his late grandson, Bryce.

Representative Dwight Scharnhorst with a picture of his late grandson, Bryce.  (photo courtesy; Missouri House Communications)

Representative Dwight Scharnhorst (R-St. Louis) says in caring for his grandson he saw firsthand how those programs can benefit special needs children, but they are expensive. He says the state has a responsibility to help pay for them.

“Our Constitution promises a free public education to every child. It does not designate that this one will cost more than that or this one will cost less. It says a free public education, and we are not delivering it. We’re actually violating the Constitution of our state right now by not putting these children where they can be educated.”

The proposal would offer an income tax credit for up to half of a taxpayer’s state liability, or up to $250,000, for donations to a scholarship that helps pay for specialized educations.  That is pared down from earlier versions of the bill that offered the credit for up to 80 percent of liability and $800,000.

Scharnhorst stresses it is not a tax deduction.

“That tax money, instead of going into General Revenue, goes into a scholarship fund that is administered by DESE.  The Department of Education will administer what organizations can be formed to dispense this money.  There’s oversights in every way, there’s means testing in every way.”

Some opponents of the bill view it as creating vouchers that would reduce general revenue funds and state education funding.

Scharnhorst says to school administrators who oppose his proposal, “Let our people go. It’s time. You have brought nothing to the table to address this. You’re suffering from it … please allow these kids to get the same opportunities that you would give the average or gifted child.”

He says without specialized educations, the children his bill covers can become violent and unmanageable, and that can lead to tragedies like the shooting in December at a Connecticut elementary school.

“That was an autistic child with a parent that was to my understanding an educated person, but didn’t know how to handle this child. We saw the ramification of that. In St. Louis in the last couple of weeks there’s been a story that’s hit the news of a family that is actually caging a 6-year-old child in the basement. If you’ve seen pictures of this cage, it just tears your heart out.”

House Speaker Tim Jones (R-Eureka) says he wants to see Bryce’s law clear the chamber this year.

Jones says, “Why we have decided to mandate autism [insurance] coverage on one hand but have failed to provide relief to parents to provide the best education for their autistic children is something that I think this General Assembly has failed on, and it’s been because of the special interests that govern the education establishment in our state.”

The bill has been passed out of a House committee with bipartisan support.