SALT LAKE CITY — A $3 million program that would fund computer programs for special needs children — particularly children with autism — in early grades passed out of a Senate committee Tuesday.

The one-time investment would provide computer programs to districts and charter schools seeking technology helps for their special needs students. The software targets socialization in addition to academics. Some districts have already purchased software similar to what's outlined in the bill, Sen. Wayne Neiderhauser, R-Sandy, said.

"There's been great success in about nine districts," Neiderhauser said. "This is wildly successful."

Deputy State Superintendent Martell Menlove said he is encouraged by any attempt to reach special needs children. He cautioned the committee about putting all the money toward a specific software program, as he said schools could better use the funding to help autistic students in a variety of ways, including hiring teachers, specialists, buying software etc.

"It's critical that we have an individual teacher in the classroom and I would hope that this does not send a message … that now we have a product that's going to take that place," said Menlove, who has a Ph.D in special education. "I'd like to have some additional flexibility."

Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, said he thinks the technology will free up teachers' time so they can give more individualized attention.

"These specialists are wonderful and they help but I'm not sure that technology won't help some of this," he said. "We can take a teacher's ability and stretch it with new technology out there."

Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, was the single opposing vote, saying he believes school districts are best qualified to make decisions about what software and programs they'd like to employ, and they might be able to find cheaper programs.

"When we mandate it on a state level … we say to them 'really, we're going to take this out of your hands,'" he said.

The bill passed 6-1. It now moves to the Senate floor.

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