COLUMBUS, Ohio – Mikey Heine wasn't going to be able to keep attending Bridgeway Academy in Columbus, Ohio, a school that has helped him grow and develop his own sense of self.
"We were looking at withdrawing Mikey from school because I didn't make enough (money)," his mom Melissa Peppercorn said.
Mikey, 8, was diagnosed with autism at the age of 2, and the following year he started attending Bridgeway, a nonprofit school on the East Side that serves students with the disorder and other special needs. In addition to schooling, Bridgeway offers life skills training and physical, occupational and speech therapy.
"They give him access to services that we would have to find ourselves or we would have had minimal access to other places," said Peppercorn, 35.
But Bridgeway's tuition comes at a hefty cost — ranging from $30,970 to $38,340 for the 2021-22 academic year, depending on the needs of the student.
Ohio Autism Scholarship: How it helps pay for special education
The family receives the Ohio Autism Scholarship, which gives parents of children with autism up to $27,000 to send their child to a special education program other than the one operated by their school district of residence. They live in Columbus, between Grandview and Upper Arlington, and their school district is Columbus City Schools.
But even with the scholarship, Peppercorn said she and her husband were paying $750 each month on their nine-month payment plan to send Mikey to Bridgeway last year.
"It felt like college tuition," she said. "It is college tuition, basically."
She said it was getting to be too much for the family. They sold their house to help cover the cost, but "it just wasn't enough at the end of the day with living expenses," she said.
So Mikey's family made the emotional decision to withdraw him from Bridgeway at the end of June for the upcoming school year.
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"I felt like a failure as a mom that I was ripping him away from his second home and taking him away from the best environment that I know he grows in," she said. "It was very frustrating to have money be the thing that stopped him."
But a week later Gov. Mike DeWine signed Ohio's new two-year budget into law, which included additional funding for the Ohio Autism Scholarship program, increasing the scholarships to $31,500 in October and $32,455 next year.
Because of the additional money, Mikey was able to start second grade at Bridgeway last week, and his family will now only have to pay $150 extra each month.
"I was very overwhelmed with emotion," Peppercorn said. "I still can't believe it. I really can't. The timing of everything was just amazing and I really feel so grateful."
Ohio's funding of special education for students with autism
The Ohio Autism Scholarship program started in 2003. Students qualify if they are at least 3 years old, have been identified by their district as having autism and district officials have created an individualized education program (IEP) for them.
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"Children and teenagers who need more concentrated one-on-one education or more speech therapy, occupational therapy, behavior therapy, can thrive in a specialized school," said Kathi Machle, managing director of the Autism Society Central Ohio.
"Having the funding to access those schools for everyone, not just the wealthy, is a fabulous move toward maximizing everyone's abilities and creating productive citizens among those with disabilities," Machle said.
The last time the scholarship saw a bump in funding was in fiscal year 2016, when the scholarship increased from $20,000 to $27,000, according to the Ohio Department of Education, which administers the program.
"It is a fairly significant increase," said Rep. Bill Blessing, a Republican from Colerain Township in Hamilton County, who is a supporter of the Autism Scholarship Program.
"It's just very expensive to care for these children."
Peppercorn hopes the Ohio Autism Scholarship Program will be frequently revisited as part of the state's biennial budget for potential future increases.
"I really hope this is something that's not just put on the back-burner and that it is brought forward more often," she said.
'Which kid do we pull?'
Bri Pergram, 36, of Westerville, sends three of her children to he Learning Spectrum, a private, charter school with three central Ohio locations that serves students with autism and offers occupational, speech and music therapy.
The cost was getting so high, however, that she was seriously considering withdrawing one of them from the school until the recent bump to the scholarship amount.
"We don't know if we are going to be able to afford this, so which kid do we pull?" Pergram remembers thinking.
Tuition at the school for the 2021-2022 school year is $31,500, so there is no out-of-pocket expense for parents who use the scholarship except for a $100 registration fee, said Jill Medley, the school's executive director.
Two of Pergram's children — Jazmin, 16, and Jakob, 14 — are recipients of the scholarship and have thrived since attending the Learning Spectrum, she said.
Another, Kenzie, 8, attends the school even though she doesn't have autism. Her parents are paying $400 a month for her to attend this school year. The school uses "peers," typically siblings of students on the autism spectrum, to model good behavior and the children learn and grow together.
"I can send both of my special needs kids off to a place where I know they are going to be loved and treated with care and respect," Pergram said. "They are going to learn in a way that behooves them and makes sense to them."
Pergram said she "cried happy tears for a whole hour" after learning about the additional money that lawmakers had added to the scholarships.
"It shouldn't be this financial burden because we want to get our kids an appropriate education in a setting that benefits them," she said. "... It doesn't also seem fair that we have to also pay for their education because they are special needs."