Task Force Says Funds Sufficient for Disability Scholarships

Task Force Says Funds Sufficient for Disability Scholarships

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CEDAR CITY, Utah (AP) -- A task force has concluded there is enough money to provide scholarships to all who qualify for new private-school disability vouchers.

The state school board, meeting Thursday in Cedar City, allayed fears some parents raised in June that the $2.4 million the Legislature allotted for the Carson Smith Special Needs Scholarship program would not be sufficient to cover all eligible students.

As of July 12, the state had received 125 applications, Associate State Superintendent Ray Timothy said.

"Even if all those students qualified for the maximum, which we know they do not, we'd still have $1.7 million," he said "If every student who applied qualified for the maximum, we could serve 460 students."

The board extended the scholarship application deadline, which had been July 1, to July 22.

Depending on the severity of a child's needs, the annual Carson Smith tuition scholarships will range from $3,450 to $5,700.

The program is for children with mental retardation; traumatic brain injury; autism; specific learning disabilities; serious emotional disturbance; or hearing, speech, language, visual, orthopedic or other health impairment.

To be eligible for the scholarship, public school students must have been attending a public school during the 2004-05 academic year and have an individualized education plan. Private school students are eligible if they attended a school that provided services for special-needs students.

On Thursday, board members broadened the definition of schools qualified to receive the tuition vouchers. Previously, schools had to demonstrate at least 80 percent of their enrollment was made up of special-needs students. Now, those schools may include any that employ or have contracts with teachers licensed by the state in special education.

"What we've got here is a good balance," board member Laurel Brown said. "It's broad enough so more schools can apply, but restrictive enough so we can be wise with taxpayers' money."

Brown added the point was to enhance chances that students will receive the services they need once they leave the public arena.

"We can't guarantee that; we can't tell private schools what to do," she said. "But it provides a higher possibility and gives taxpayers more assurance."

Royce Van Tassell, executive director of the organization Education Excellence Utah, said the board cannot regulate private schools beyond what is set forth in the law.

He said the Legislature did not make a distinction between eligible and specialized schools. By adding this distinction, it sets requirements for the scholarship at a higher standard.

That means only about eight schools statewide will qualify to have scholarship students, he said.

"Having a special education license is nowhere in the legislation," he said.

Van Tassel's group is considering how to challenge the board's new definition.

State Superintendent Patti Harrington said, "The Legislature didn't define what a school that specializes in services for students with disabilities is. That's created a conundrum and left it to the board to define it. The expanded definition is going to include more kids and it seems there's going to be enough money to cover those kids."

(Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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