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Published in Print: March 17, 2004, as Utah Passes Special Education Voucher Bill

Utah Passes Special Education Voucher Bill

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A Utah voucher proposal that would help parents of children with disabilities pay for private secular or religious schools could become the second of its kind in the nation.

By following Florida's lead, Utah may spur other states to pass vouchers for special education students, some analysts speculate, provided the bill becomes law.

"This could, in a sense, start a snowball rolling," said Steve Smith, a senior policy specialist in education at the Denver-based National Conference of State Legislatures. "It takes a while for movements such as this to gain traction, but I wouldn't be surprised to see things move toward broader-scale implementation."

Earlier this month, the Utah Senate approved a $1.5 million voucher initiative that could give some families more than $5,000 per child in public money to pay private school tuition. The House had already approved the measure, but it faces a final hurdle: getting signed by Gov. Olene S. Walker.

Families of children with disabilities and advocates for them are split over the statewide proposal, with some applauding the resources it would provide and others worrying that it would drain the public school system. Florida is currently the only state with a voucher program in place for children with disabilities, but the Colorado legislature is also eyeing one.

The Utah proposal would apply to the 56,000 special education students in the state, and would provide public money for parents who want to send their children to private schools, including those that specialize in teaching children with disabilities. Students would have to be enrolled in public schools the previous school year to be eligible.

Rep. Merlynn T. Newbold

The vouchers' value would be based on the amount of time a student spends in special education classes in the public schools. The cost of that instruction could range from $3,720 to $5,375, according to Mark Mickelsen, a spokesman for the Utah Education Association, which opposes the proposal. State lawmakers set aside $1.5 million for the vouchers as well as $100,000 to administer the program, to be spent over two years, said Republican Rep. Merlynn T. Newbold, a co- sponsor of the measure.

"I think we're seeing there is more than one way to help children with special needs, and we want to do that whatever way we can," she said.

Opinions Divided

Some parents of children with disabilities, like Cheryl C. Smith of Cottonwood Heights, Utah, say the vouchers would provide much-needed assistance. The Utah bill bears the name of Ms. Smith's 5-year-old son, Carson, who has autism and attends a private school.

Ms. Smith pays $21,000 a year in tuition for intensive classes at the Carmen B. Pingree School for Children with Autism for her son, who can't speak, is not toilet-trained, and won't stay seated in a chair for more than a few seconds at a time.

She said she would prefer he went to public school, but the programs there just don't meet his needs.

"We pay taxes to public schools, but our kids don't go there," she said. "We just want a little bit of help."

Ms. Smith argues that the voucher program could actually save districts money because public schools would spend much more than $5,000 to educate her son and others like him. He'd need a full-time aide and specialized teachers, she said.

But Donna J. Gleaves, the executive director of The Arc of Utah, an advocacy group for people with disabilities based in Salt Lake City, said the group opposed the bill.

She pointed out that it provides few accountability requirements, such as mandatory testing, to ensure that students would get a good education.

In private schools, families would not be protected by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which provides legal recourse if special education students don't get the services they need, she added.

The plan also sets some families up for disappointment, especially in rural areas, where there may not be private schools for students with disabilities, she said.

And, Ms. Gleaves added, it's crucial that such students not be totally separated from students who follow regular programs. "This is clearly a bid to segregate opportunities," she said. "The long-term implications of this kind of proposal could be horrendous."

Gov. Walker, a Republican, has 20 days from the March 3 end of the legislative session to either sign or veto the proposal, said spokeswoman Amanda Covington. "The governor has some concerns about it," Ms. Covington said. "She wants to ensure that we don't benefit one group of special-needs children at the potential of harming the special education benefits of others."

National Attention

Across the country, those interested in the Utah special education voucher proposal have also watched how a similar Florida program has played out.

The McKay Scholarships for students with disabilities there provide money for special education students to attend private schools. Proposals to tighten state oversight of Florida's three statewide voucher programs have come in the wake of accusations that lax regulation has resulted in abuses. ("Supporters Debate Fla. Voucher Rules," Jan. 14, 2004.)

The Utah program attempts to avert questions about accountability by requiring an audit of the program after two years, Ms. Newbold said.

Colorado's voucher proposal for special education students is similar to Utah's, said Colorado Commissioner of Education William J. Moloney. That measure has passed the Colorado House and is awaiting action in the Senate.

Last year, Colorado approved a broader voucher initiative that was to go into effect this coming fall. That program, which targets up to 20,000 students from low-income families, is on hold because of legal challenge arguing that the law violates the state's constitution. ("Colo. Judge Puts State's Vouchers on Hold," Dec. 10, 2003.)

As the Utah plan sits on the governor's desk, some groups continue to lobby against it.

Mr. Mickelsen of the 19,000-member Utah Education Association said his group is fighting the proposal. "We're not going to support any system that takes money away from the public schools and gives it to the private [schools]," he said.

Vol. 23, Issue 27, Pages 31,37

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