SALT LAKE CITY — Deafblindness would become a qualifying disability for the Carson Smith Scholarship under SB153, which was endorsed Monday by the Senate Education Committee.
Deafblindness is a combination of sight and hearing impairment that impacts communication, the ability to access information and mobility.
The Carson Smith Special Needs Scholarship Program provides tuition assistance for eligible special needs students enrolled in eligible private schools.
The scholarship, signed into law by Gov. Jon M. Huntsman in 2005, is for students who qualify for special education services in public schools, preschool through 12th grade, whose parents choose an eligible private school.
Cheryl Smith, whose son is the namesake of the scholarship, said Carson is now 19 years old and 6 feet tall. "He still needs it. He's still considered severely affected (by autism). This scholarship helps so many children make the progress they need to," she said.
The bill's sponsor, Sen. Brian Zehnder, R-Holladay, said SB153 would also allow any remaining funds at the end of a year to be distributed for all-day preschool programs for qualifying students.
Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, said the Legislature should revisit the scholarship program's funding caps.
The program "doesn't cost, it pays," he said.
The scholarship program helps parents enroll their children with disabilities in private programs outside the public school system. Many of the students have profound disabilities that require expensive special education services. When they leave the public school system, school districts no longer have to provide those services, he said.
"There's no reason why the district should be a lottery winner every time a child takes this Carson Smith scholarship," Stephenson said.Comment on this story
While the scholarship gives parents the choice of sending their child to private schools or programs, "the amount is so small compared to what parents then have to pay out of pocket this has become, actually, a scholarship for special needs students whose parents can afford massive amounts of funding out of their own pocket every year," Stephenson said.
For the 2017-18 school year, the maximum scholarship amount is $8,277.50 per year, according to the Utah State Board of Education website.
Some parents pay $10,000 to $15,000 a year beyond that, "which bars many, many parents of special needs children from ever being able to access this scholarship," he said.
The full amount of government funding for the education of a child with disabilities should follow the child to private providers of the parents' choice, Stephenson said.