For almost seven years, the state has allowed parents to withdraw their autistic children from public schools and buy private services with taxpayer money.
The legislation that created the Autistic Scholarship Program [sic: the name is Autism Scholarship Program] in 2003 was deliberately written with minimal financial or academic oversight.
Lawmakers wanted to give parents frustrated with public schools the money with few strings attached.
The program swelled almost 500 percent, from 300 children in the 2004-05 school year to 1,672 during the past school year.
But since the spring of 2009, when the Ohio Department of Education started taking formal complaints from parents, who receive up to $20,000 a year, investigators have found problems with three of the providers on the state-approved list.
The first two reports were filed late last year, one about an Akron private school and one about a consulting service in northwestern Ohio.
In those cases, investigators exposed poor record-keeping; overbilling; and billing for services that were not delivered, not required or provided by unqualified, uncertified staff members.
In the northwestern Ohio case, the state found that a high-school graduate with no qualifications was tutoring an autistic child in math.
The shortcomings shouldn't surprise anyone.
The state has been warned for years by school districts as well as newspaper reports, a public-policy research group and the legislature's own research arm that the private providers need more scrutiny.
But the payments - $86 million to date - have flowed out of Columbus with few questions asked about whether the children and the taxpayers are getting their money's worth.
Paula Black spent years warning the state that the money it was handing out in her autistic son's name was being misspent at a private Akron Christian school.
When the state investigated this year, it concluded she was correct.
While Black still believes in the Autism Scholarship voucher program that allows her to seek private services instead of a public education, she wishes the state cared more about the quality of those services.
At The Daily Yonder, however, the mother of a girl with Asperger has a much more positive view:
I focus on finding her the best tools possible for living life. Fortunately, the state of Ohio has the Autism Scholarship Program that allows us to choose services from a list of state approved providers in place of sending her to public school. I believe that public schools should be inclusive environments. However, when offered the opportunity of placing her among folks who specialize in educating high functioning special needs kids and a teacher to student ratio of 1:5, we jumped at it. Rosa attends Linden Grove School; a parent cooperative school here in Cincinnati that is a 30-minute drives from our home. Some students live in rural areas up to two counties away and travel over an hour to get to Linden Grove. As parents of special needs children, this is what we do. Unbound by the time eating reporting demands associated with public schools such as the No Child Left Behind Act, Linden Grove is able to focus on creating ways in which our kids can learn.
- Comments on the program from The Autism Society of Ohio
- Official FAQs on the program
- US Dept of Education report on regulation of private schools