Governor Signs School Choice Bill for Disabled Students

Governor Signs School Choice Bill for Disabled Students

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- Parents of children with disabilities will get a tax break to help send those children to private schools now that Gov. Jon Huntsman has signed the Carson Smith Special Needs Scholarship bill into law.

Huntsman signed the bill during an afternoon ceremony Thursday at the Carmen Pingree School for Children with Autism in Salt Lake City.

The bill's namesake, six-year-old Carson Smith who has autism, was present for the signing.

"He didn't want to sit on the governor's lap, but he jumped up and down when it was over," his mother, Cheryl Smith said.

The bill gives parents up to $5,600 a year in tax credits to offset tuition at private schools so that children with disabilities can get a better educational chance. Utah has more than 54,000 disabled kids in public schools and some parents have complained that public school tutoring for the children is lacking.

"I know families personally that have second-mortgaged their homes and have had their phones turned off because you get this child with special needs and you just take advantage of any opportunity to help them," Cheryl Smith said. "This bill allows us finally to get some help. It makes a big difference."

Private education for children with special needs can be exorbitantly expensive. Tuition at the Pingree school, for example, can cost as much as $21,000 annually.

Not all of the state's disabled kids are expected to be pulled from public schools, the bill's sponsor Rep. Merlynn Newbold, R-South Jordan, has said.

As they did when the bill was first proposed in 2004, lawmakers have budgeted $1.6 million for the subsidy.

The bill passed both the House and the Senate last year, but was vetoed by then Gov. Olene Walker, who feared the measure failed to give the state school board control over how the subsidy money would be spent. State attorneys had also warned that private schools wouldn't be required to provide any particular services in return for the taxpayer subsidy.

Newbold, who also attended Thursday's signing, said she was delighted.

"It was a good day for me, but it was a great day for those families," she said. "It means so much to those families and their children. It puts their specific education needs within reach."

(Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.) APTV-03-10-05 1912MST

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