Dwight Scharnhorst was elected to the Missouri House of Representatives in 2006. Shortly thereafter his grandson, Bryce, was diagnosed with autism. On April 22, 2007 Bryce suffered a seizure that took his life. To Representative Scharnhorst, those events were not unrelated. In a recent interview with the Show-Me Institute he said, “I think the Lord was tapping me on the shoulder, ‘I put you here, and that’s part of why.’” For more on Bryce’s story, see this brief video.
In 2008, Scharnhorst introduced a bill known as “Bryce’s Law” to the Missouri legislature. Had it passed, it would have created a valuable school choice program that provided scholarships for children like Bryce who suffer from autism or other severe health impairments. Funding for the scholarships would have come from donations from individuals who in turn would receive a credit toward their taxes. The tax credit scholarship bill failed to gain support in the House of Representatives and did not pass. Many lawmakers simply would not support a school choice bill that would allow students to use funds at a private school, no matter how needy the students might be.
Undeterred, Scharnhorst proposed similar bills in 2009, 2011, 2012, and 2013. Finally, in 2014 the Missouri Legislature passed Bryce’s Law. However, the bill that finally passed was not the same as the bills that Scharnhorst has previously proposed—it did not contain a tax credit. Instead, the truly agreed to and finally passed bill called on the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) to seek grants to fund scholarships.
The change in the bill meant that donors would only receive a standard deduction for donating to a scholarship organization, just as they would had the bill not been passed. Since 2014, DESE has not reported a single student as having benefitted from Bryce’s law.
Next year Bryce’s law is set to sunset. However, the needs of students with autism and other severe impairments have never been greater, and expanding their education options has never been more important. Rather than let this worthy program simply die without ever having reached its potential, lawmakers should finally fund Bryce’s law. They should do so directly, not through a tax deduction or a tax credit program. This is the only way to ensure that funding is available to serve these precious children in the programs their parents choose.
Check back later this month when the Show-Me Institute releases an essay, “Bryce’s Law Revisited: Serving Missouri’s Neediest Students Through Targeted Scholarships,” co-authored by Michael McShane, Susan Pendergrass, and James Shuls.