Utah Enacts Voucher Program for Special-Needs Students

Published May 1, 2005

Children with autism and other special needs in Utah received help on March 10 when freshman Gov. Jon Huntsman (R) signed a law providing 600 special-education students with private school vouchers.

The new program–named the Carson Smith Special Needs Scholarship Act, after an autistic Salt Lake City student who attends the Carmen B. Pingree School for Children with Autism–had been a political football over the past year. Well over 60 percent of Utah’s registered voters supported it, and the state House and Senate narrowly approved the bill in the 2004 legislative session. Citing potential legal concerns, then-Gov. Olene Walker (R) vetoed the measure, but she left intact the $1.4 million the legislature had appropriated for the scholarships.

The bill did not have enough support in the House to override her veto, so the funds remained unspent.

Governor Was Replaced

Although she had enjoyed approval ratings above 75 percent, Walker lost at last spring’s Republican nominating convention to Huntsman, who supported the voucher bill when it was first introduced and throughout his campaign. Many Utah observers blame Walker’s veto of the Carson Smith Scholarship for her convention loss.

Undaunted by the veto, Rep. Merlynn Newbold (R-South Jordan) worked with opponents between the 2004 and 2005 legislative sessions to craft a bill that addressed Walker’s legal concerns. “This scholarship shows what can happen when people who really care for children cooperate,” Newbold said at the signing ceremony. “Each Carson Smith Scholarship will help Utah’s special-needs children attend a school that gives them optimal help.”

“I’m ecstatic,” said Jennifer Fillmore, whose son, also named Carson, attends the Carmen B. Pingree School for Children with Autism. “I just hope this scholarship helps all the kids with special needs, because they really need the help now.”

Little Money Available

The legislature appropriated $2.5 million for the scholarships. As a result, less than 2 percent of Utah’s 54,000 eligible special-needs children will be able to receive a Carson Smith Scholarship in the 2005-06 school year. However, the legislature reappropriated the $1.4 million left from last year to fund scholarships for children who would have been eligible in the 2004-05 school year. Future legislatures will decide annually how much to appropriate for the scholarships.

“The Carson Smith Scholarship will give many special-needs children an equal chance at a quality education,” said Elisa Peterson, executive director of Parents for Choice in Education. “Hopefully the legislature and the governor can work together to make Carson Smith Scholarships available for all of Utah’s special-needs children.”

M. Royce Van Tassell ([email protected]) is executive director of Education Excellence Utah, a Utah think tank promoting parental choice in education.