A bill that would provide a government voucher for students with disabilities to attend private schools hit a dead end Monday following an emotional, two-hour committee hearing.

The House Education Committee narrowly voted to move on to other business without taking action on HB115, "Carson Smith Special Needs Scholarships." The vote followed a tie, and therefore unsuccessful, vote to table the bill.

The measure would cost the state an estimated $1.2 million in state money, plus federal funds, as a result of disabled kids leaving public schools.

"No one knows how difficult it is to deal with students with disabilities more than a parent, and next to a parent, probably a teacher," said an emotional Rep. Kory Holdaway, R-Taylorsville, who is a special educator. "Looking at the fiscal note on this bill has — and I see the needs of so many students — to take from the many to give to the few. I can't justify that at this point."

Bill co-sponsor Rep. Merlynn Newbold, R-South Jordan, a friend of Carson Smith's family, plans to talk with fellow committee members to answer questions or possibly tweak the bill to win their support.

If support is there, the bill will return to the committee's agenda, said its chairwoman, Rep. Margaret Dayton, R-Orem.

Smith's parents were disappointed, but hopeful.

"They're afraid of the doors it will open" to future vouchers or tuition tax credits for all children, said Frank Smith, father of the 5-year-old student at the Carmen B. Pingree School for Children with Autism. "This is not a voucher — it's a scholarship for special needs kids."

"I just don't know why they don't just try it," Cheryl Smith said. "We're not finished fighting for it."

HB115, sponsored by Newbold and Rep. Morgan Philpot, R-Sandy, would give a renewable, three-year scholarship to parents of children with a disability, from autism to traumatic brain injury. It would be worth 1.73 to 2.5 times the weighted pupil unit, depending on the severity of the disability. The WPU is valued at $2,150.

Some parents say the money, though not much of a dent in tuition at some schools — the Pingree school charges $21,000 a year for its intensive program — is still needed. Some, for example, have taken out second mortgages on their homes to get the instruction their children can't get in public schools.

"Our funds are exhausted; we are exhausted," said Laura Anderson, whose 7-year-old autistic son attends the Pingree school. She says the boy has been working on making eye contact with others and controlling his actions as a "biter" and "pincher" who sometimes draws teachers' blood.

"This is the option for him. It's able to provide the intensity he needs . . . and we might actually be able to go (back) to the public school, which we have been working with."

Indeed, returning students to public education is the mission of the Pingree school, officials said.

Newbold cited three other private schools dedicated to special needs children — at least two of which already receive public funds under contracts with school districts — but added that others exist.

But Rep. Loraine Pace, R-Logan, was concerned new students wanting to attend Pingree under the bill wouldn't be able to. Though Philpot said Pingree would expand as resources become available, the school has no space left, and turned away 50 potential students this school year.

Teacher credentials also is a sore spot for some.

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Participating private schools' teachers must have at least a bachelor's degree and three years' experience. But teachers don't have to have special education training. And schools don't have to extend education rights to students guaranteed under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

"No, (public school has) not always been perfect," said Lisa Wade, parent of a son with autism and part of the Legislative Coalition for People With Disabilities, which opposes the bill. "But in the public system, I have a say . . . and recourse protected under the federal law."


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