T.J. Kirkpatrick, Deseret News
Judi Clark, director of Parents for Choice in Education, wears a sticker showing her support of the Carson Smith Special Needs Scholarship during Carson Smith Scholarship Day at the Capitol in Salt Lake City, Utah Friday, Feb. 26, 2010. T.J. Kirkpatrick / Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — More children with special needs will be able to access the Carson Smith Scholarship program if a bill that cleared the Senate Education Committee on Tuesday becomes law.

The committee voted unanimously to advance SB103, which would create a formula to increase the funds appropriated to the scholarship program each year in an effort to keep up with population and demand growth. The scholarship awards funds to students with special needs such as autism to help offset the costs of pursuing private or specialized education.

The bill's sponsor, Sen. Stuart Adams, R-Layton, said the popular and successful program has been limited by a fixed dollar amount each year despite an increased number of families applying for the scholarship. The increased demand has led to the use of a lottery system to award the scholarship funds, which Adams said adds to the challenges experienced by the parents of special needs children.

"What we're trying to do with this bill is to allow it to grow at a modest rate to be able to service additional kids," Adams said.

Martell Menlove, state superintendent of public instruction, said the equation put forward in the bill would likely eliminate the need for a lottery next year. But he added as a clarification that increased opportunity to access the program would likely lead to a higher number of applicants and a return to a lottery system at some point in the future.

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Several parents spoke in favor of the bill, including Cheryl Smith, whose son, Carson, is the scholarship's namesake. She emotionally thanked lawmakers for their consideration of the bill and their efforts to assist families of special needs children in accessing the educational resources they need.

"We don't expect you to give us the moon," she said. "We second mortgage our houses and sell our cars because we're so desperate as parents to make sure our kids can have their best life."

The committee advanced the bill to the full Senate by unanimous vote, which was followed by applause from those in attendance.

E-mail: benwood@desnews.com