Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Survey Says...

Utah has a scholarship program for children with special needs. It's called the Carson Smith Scholarship for Students with Special Needs. Named for a young child who has severe autism. Carson Smith originally attended public schools but it became apparent that Carson needed to be in a specialized environment.

"By no fault of their own, public school teachers are faced with dealing with all kinds of disabilities, let alone trying to figure out what works for my child, who is different from every other child with autism. I have other children who have prospered in public schools. Carson cannot, " his mother Cheryl said.

Carson was encouraged to enroll in the Pingree School for Children with Autism - it offered a lot of individualized services and attention, but at a hefty price - $23,000 a year.

The Smith family and others were determined to help Carson and other children with disabilities in Utah. Cheryl contacted her state legislator and she and supporters didn't stop their efforts until the Carson Smith Scholarship for Students with Special Needs was created.

The Utah state legislature enacted the program in 2005 to provide limited financial assistance to the families of children with special needs. Students meeting the scholarship qualifications could apply for a partial or full scholarship to pay for a portion of the tuition at a private school selected by the students' parents or guardians. Utah currently has 39 private schools in 13 school districts eligible to participate. The special needs child is not required to live in one of the 13 districts to be considered for the scholarship. In the first year of the program there were 108 participating students. That number grew to 361 in the second year. A growth rate of 49% is projected for the third year of the program.

The Office of the Legislative Auditor General was required by law to conduct an audit of the Carson Smith Scholarship program. According to Utah Code, "parents are best equipped to make decisions for their children, including the educational setting that will service the interests and educational needs of their children." Therefore, the best measure for success of the program is gained from parental evaluation. Overall, the parents participating in the program believe it is a success.

Survey Results:

1. My child's private school provides(ed) services for my child's disability. 91% agree

2. The private school's teachers seem qualified.* 98% agree

3. The private school's teachers seem qualified to address my child's special needs. 94% agree

4. My child's needs were/are met at the private school. 91% agree

5. My child's academic performance increased while at the private school.** 89% agree

6. I am/was satisfied with my child's private school. 89% agree

7. The Carson Smith Scholarship should continue to exist for eligible students. 100% agree

*These results were based on responses from 52 parents. One parent gave a response that could not be evaluated for this question.

**These results were based on responses from 44 parents. Nine parents said the question did not apply to them for reasons including their child's private school did not use a grading system or the student has always gone to private school.

Although the program is still pretty young, it seems obvious that parents are satisfied.

Missouri has a similar opportunity with pending legislation this year. Namely, SB 993 and HB 1886, identical pieces of legislation that would create scholarship tax credit programs for special needs students.

Utah isn't the only state with a scholarship program for special needs students. Arizona, Florida, Georgia, and Ohio also have similar programs. Read more about their programs here.

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