Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, plans to push legislation that would allow parents of autistic children to choose the best schools for their children.
"They have a very difficult time in a regular setting in a classroom," said Shapiro, who long has supported vouchers. "I would like to see a choice program. ... It's what I think we should do for children with autism."
The number of Texas children diagnosed with various degrees of autism has nearly doubled over the past five years, increasing from 8,972 students to 17,282 in the 2005-06 school year, according to the Texas Education Agency.
Autism is a complex developmental disability that affects the functioning of the brain and development in the areas of social interaction and communication skills.
A voucher program would allow eligible parents to spend a certain amount of tax dollars allocated for a child's public school education at any school — public or private. The public school could be in a different district from the child's home district.
Even some lawmakers who have opposed vouchers say they are willing to consider Shapiro's proposal. And while some parents hail the voucher idea, education groups will oppose it.
Demand and opposition
Kendra Imbus embraces Shapiro's proposal.
Her 4-year-old, Catherine, has severe autism and attends an early childhood autism program in the Katy Independent School District. Many others are on a waiting list.
Catherine also attends Shape of Behavior Inc., a private school that specializes in teaching autistic children.
If given a choice, Imbus said, parents could get help to cover the cost for intensive and specialized education.
"Maybe you could get them to a point where they could be mainstreamed, and then, maybe, you wouldn't have to spend that money later," Imbus said. "That's what I think the general public doesn't realize. If we could help them now, maybe they wouldn't have to be institutionalized when they are older."
But she is not optimistic that lawmakers will support Shapiro's plan.
"It will be a hard sell. I don't think the public cares," Imbus said. "I don't think they understand the issue. I don't think they realize how many of these children are out there. This is going to become an economic disaster in our country."
There is no known cure for autism. Early intervention is imperative.
Holli De Clemente also has enrolled her 3-year-old son, Justice, in Shape of Behavior. The school, with six locations, enrolls 40 children and has 45 staff members.
De Clemente said her Magnolia Independent School District has beautiful public schools but, from her perspective, was unable to provide adequate support for Justice.
She said her son made "a mind-boggling transformation" nearly immediately after being placed in the private school: He began speaking.
Shape of Behavior charges $2,000 a month for part-time students and $4,000 a month for full-time students.
"What typical family in America can do that? My parents are helping us with part of it, because it's impossible," De Clemente said.
Education groups vigorously oppose voucher programs in Texas. Such proposals typically involve vouchers for low-income parents to move children from low performing, inner-city schools to private schools or better public schools.
Voucher supporters and opponents agree any move to allow vouchers for one disability or disease could open the door to other subsets of students.
"Public tax dollars should go to fund public schools, not private schools," said Richard Kouri, a spokesman for the Texas State Teachers Association. "Our belief is that once you start moving public tax dollars to private schools, whatever the initial reason, future arguments become arguments around expanding that existing program."
State Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, said she opposes school vouchers but agonizes with parents of autistic children.
Van de Putte, a member of the Senate Education Committee, said parents don't want to open the floodgates for a full-blown voucher system but that they are lobbying for a limited-purpose voucher program in special cases in which the school district agrees that it can't provide needed services.
Van de Putte, emphasizing that she opposes "diverting money and passion away from our public school system," said she is open-minded.
Ongoing vouchers battleLawmakers have fought over school vouchers during most of the past decade.
San Antonio physician-turned-businessman James Leininger spent nearly $5 million this year tying to elect voucher-friendly candidates. But his effort largely failed, and now Leininger is pushing a compromise idea that would allow school districts to keep a portion of the tax money when students take a voucher to enroll in another school.
"Leaving a percentage of the funds devoted to the student with the public school creates a win-win situation," Leininger's spokesman, Ken Hoagland, said.
But Van de Putte said there simply is no appetite in the Legislature for a full-blown voucher program allowing tax dollars for low-income parents to send children to private schools.
Leininger also supports a voucher program for autistic children, his spokesman said.
Special needsAccording to Domonique Randall, founder of the Shape of Behavior schools, it takes about two years of intensive interaction at a young age before an autistic child can transition to a general education classroom.
"Our goal is to teach them to learn within a group and to teach them to participate in a group setting," Randall said.
The most effective approach involves "applied behavior analysis," which emphasizes positive reinforcement, Randall said. Many public school teachers are not trained in applied behavior analysis, she said.
"These children going into public schools are either secluded and put into classrooms with children all having disabilities, and so they don't get the opportunity to learn from their typically developing peers, or their behavior (keeps) them from that opportunity," Randall said. "But the behavior is the result of teachers not being trained."