Utah Lacking Takers for New Special-Needs Voucher
Supporters of Utah’s new voucher program for students with special needs feared that financing for the program would come up short. As of last month, though, only about a third of the money available for the state aid had been used.
Just $740,100 of more than $2.5 million the state allocated for the Carson Smith Special Needs Scholarships for fiscal 2006 has been awarded, going to 128 scholarships, according to state education officials.
Utah is the second state, after Florida, to offer a voucher program for students with disabilities.
According to the state, some 63 special-needs students have used the scholarships to leave public schools and attend state-approved secular or religious private schools that serve such students. State officials had estimated that the number would be in the hundreds, and Utah cut funding to public schools by more than $900,000 this fiscal year in anticipation of the expected transfers. The other students using the vouchers were already in private schools.
“The [state] analyst … estimated that some larger number than has left public education would leave and made a corresponding reduction in the appropriation for education,” said Larry K. Shumway, the Utah education agency’s coordinator for state and federal programs. “The number the analyst predicted didn’t materialize.”
The state board of education has made it a legislative priority to replace at least some of public education’s $900,000 loss when the legislature convenes in 2006. Some lawmakers are expected to work to correct the problem in the session.
The vouchers pay as much as $5,500 per student annually for students in special education to attend private schools. Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., a Republican, signed the voucher measure into law in May.
His predecessor and fellow Republican, Gov. Olene S. Walker, vetoed such a measure when it came across her desk a year earlier, saying she believed it was unconstitutional. Supporters of the measure, including the parents of Carson Smith, the boy with autism for whom the scholarship is named, helped block Ms. Walker’s 2004 bid to retain the governorship.
The Utah program is modeled on Florida’s John M. McKay Scholarships. The Florida program, which became law in 2001, provides scholarships to students with disabilities to attend private schools.
Getting the Word Out
Students who qualify for the Utah scholarships must attend schools that have been approved by the state education office. So far, 13 schools in the state have been deemed eligible, according to state officials.
About 55,000 Utah K-12 students are eligible to apply for the scholarships.
M. Royce Van Tassell, the executive director of Education Excellence Utah, a Salt Lake City think tank that is devoted to school choice issues and supports the vouchers, said that the program was still taking shape. Mr. Van Tassell said Florida’s program also started off slowly, but now reaches almost 16,000 students.
“Clearly, the biggest hurdle is getting the word out to parents,” said Mr. Van Tassell, whose group mailed 12,000 fliers to parents to advertise the scholarship program. “I’ve been surprised by the number of families who didn’t know about this until we contacted them.”
In addition, he said, the rules for the program were being tinkered with up until July, making the process confusing.
Mr. Van Tassell said getting private schools to register to become eligible to accept the vouchers is also difficult. But he predicted that next year the number of schools approved to receive Carson Smith Scholarship students would double.
For now, Utah public schools have just over $900,000 less to educate their students. Total state aid to K-12 public schools is $2.2 billion for the current fiscal year.
With the lowest average per-pupil spending in the country, at $5,132, Utah public schools need all the money they can get, said Martell Menlove, the superintendent of the Box Elder schools in Brigham City, Utah.
Not one of the 10,500 students in the district has used a Carson Smith voucher, he said, and no schools in his district or area have been approved to receive such students. While his district has no students moving to private schools under the program, it still will lose some overall funding, he said.
Mr. Menlove argues that the relatively small number of families seeking the scholarships is a positive reflection on the services provided by the state’s public schools.
“I think it reflects that the very vast majority of parents are satisfied with the services their students with disabilities are receiving in Utah public schools,” he said.
Vol. 25, Issue 06, Page 18Published in Print: October 5, 2005, as Utah Lacking Takers for New Special-Needs Voucher