New Opportunity for Colorado's Autistic Students a Little Closer

The challenge of being able to help all kids shouldn’t be a reason not to help some kids. That’s why I’m excited that Colorado is one step closer to having legislation that will provide new options for students with autism.

Senator Nancy Spence, truly one of the legislature’s champions for educational choice and opportunity, has sponsored Senate Bill 130. In its original form (PDF), the bill would have created a new scholarship program so parents of autistic kids could choose to enroll them in a private school to meet their special needs.

If you look in the Alliance for School Choice’s brand-new School Choice Yearbook 2008-09 (PDF), you will learn – among many other things – that five different states have some sort of special-needs scholarship program. In fact, Ohio has an existing Autism Scholarship Program that in its fifth year (2007-08) had more than 1,000 students and 200 schools participating.

Bills that include private school choice tend not to do so well these days at the Colorado State Capitol, though there is some support among members of both parties. At the hearing Senator Chris Romer came up with an amendment so the bill would create a special pilot program of up to 3 public charter schools across the state to serve the needs of autistic students.

After lots of compelling testimony from parents and educators, the Senate Education Committee late yesterday approved SB 130 in its amended form (not yet available online) on a 6-2 vote. Supporting the bill, in addition to Spence and Romer, were Senate President Peter Groff, Senator Keith King, Senator Mark Scheffel, and chairman Senator Bob Bacon.

One major theme repeated in the arguments against the bill was that it isn’t right to provide an innovative choice program to students with one kind of disability without helping all students. Excuse me? Seeing clearly that the status quo isn’t working for many autistic kids, that this particular legislation doesn’t help everyone seems like a poor reason to shoot it down.

Anyway, SB 130 moves on the Appropriations Committee, where legislators can work hard to sort out the funding issues to help the families of autistic students. While the bill still has a long way to go to become law, it was good to see SB 130 clear one major hurdle. This is the kind of reform we can rally behind.